By Gerri Elder
A Bucks County, Pa. judge has ruled that a minister who was ordained through the Internet may legally preside over marriage ceremonies.
The Legal Intelligencer reported that Judge C. Theodore Fritsch Jr. ruled against a September 2007 decision by a York County, Pa. judge who made a marriage performed by the Internet-ordained minister invalid.
In 2007, in Heyer v. Hollerbush York County Judge Maria Musti Cook held that Dorie Heyer and Jacob Hollerbush were never married because the Universal Life Church minister officiating the ceremony didn’t have a congregation or preach in a house of worship.
Following Cook's decision in the case, county offices across the state advised couples that marriages performed by ministers who don’t have a congregation and don’t serve a house of worship would be invalid. In Bucks County, the register of wills urged some couples to get remarried if the minister presiding over the ceremony didn’t regularly serve a congregation.
American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania went to court on behalf of three couples seeking declarations of valid marriages. With Judge Fritsch's decision, Roper won all three cases.
Roper told The Legal Intelligencer that until there is a ruling by a Pennsylvania appellate court on the issue, there would still be uncertainty. She plans to file a similar suit on behalf of a York County couple to present a direct challenge to Cook's decision.
By filing a lawsuit in York County, Roper could have the decision reversed in Heyer v. Hollerbush or deliver one that could be taken up on appeal to resolve the issue statewide.
The most recent decision on the issue involved Jason and Jennifer O'Neill of Conshohocken, Pa. The couple says that Robert A. Norman, who is Mr. O’Neill’s uncle, married them in 2006 in Bucks County. Norman is a Universal Life Church Minister.
Jason and Jennifer O'Neill said that the Universal Life Church is "an established church that is recognized as such by its members and is accorded tax-exempt status by the federal and state governments." The couples claim that Norman officiated the ceremony for a religious ceremony that didn’t favor one family’s religious traditions over the other.
Fritsch wrote in his opinion that he recognized Cook's 2007 decision caused uncertainty for many people. He also noted the decision had a widespread effect, causing some marriage certificates to be rejected.
Following Cook's decision, the Bucks County register mailed letters to couples to inform them of the decision. The letters urged the couples to verify that their officiator was a legitimate member of an established church or congregation.
Fritsch determined the Cook had interpreted the Pennsylvania Marriage Act narrowly and incorrectly. The law does not exclude ministers without a congregation or physical church. Under a broader reading of the law, Fritsch found that Universal Life Church ministers may legally officiate marriage ceremonies.
Currently, it is legal in all 50 states for Internet-ordained ministers to officiate, with the exception of a few counties in Virginia, Pennsylvania and North Carolina. A federal court struck down a statute in Utah that made it illegal for people to become ordained ministers online or to officiate online weddings.
Divorce attorneys believe that with the legal issues over Internet-ordained ministers, spouses who want an easy out from a marriage could use it to their advantage, reported The National Law Journal in a follow-up article. If someone is looking avoid paying alimony or splitting marital property, he or she can claim the wedding wasn’t valid so the marriage isn’t either.
However, some say that the court will still rule in favor of the spouse being left. The National Law Journal reported Scott of James D. Scott Attorney at Law in San Diego as saying that "the law favors marriage. If you had a ceremony, you had a marriage license and you lived together, I think the courts are going to protect the spouse who would otherwise be injured."