By Gerri Elder
Dorie E. Heyer and Jacob T. Hollerbush from Pennsylvania were married on August 24, 2006. The wedding was officiated by a friend of theirs who became an ordained minister via the internet. He was ordained online by Universal Life Church Monastery.
Seven months later the couple decided that it wasn't working out and each decided to look into divorce attorneys to handle the divorce. Then they had an inspired idea. They decided to ask a judge if their marriage ceremony was in fact ever legal under Pennsylvania state law, since their friend had been ordained on the internet. They figured that they might not need a divorce after all; if the marriage was never legal they could just go their separate ways.
Heyer and Hollerbush went to court in York County, Pennsylvania to determine the validity of their marriage and to find out if they needed to get a divorce or to just split. The judge told the couple that they would not need divorce lawyers because, in fact, they were never married. The marriage was declared to be invalid.
Pennsylvania law requires that the person officiating at a wedding be a judge, mayor or a minister, priest or rabbi of a 'regularly established church or congregation'.
The internet can be used for a lot of things, both legal and not legal, but in Pennsylvania it can not make you a legally ordained minister without an established church or congregation. Pennsylvania law does not recognize a minister ordained through mail order or on the internet without a church or congregation as a 'real' minister.
David Cleaver, the solicitor for the state Association of Registers of Wills and Clerks of Orphans’ Court, says that this case is the first of its kind in Pennsylvania. He says that his organization has requested that members not file marriages that were performed by mail order or internet ordained ministers.
The friend of Heyer and Hollerbush, Adam Johnston, told Judge Maria Musti Cook that he does not have a congregation or a regular place of worship. Judge Cook found that Johnston was not a member of the Universal Life Church before he was ordained by them.
The now split and never legally married couple says that they hope their case will be of benefit to others. And if the ruling by Judge Cook is upheld, it likely will have an impact. Whether or not it's a 'benefit' will depend on the circumstances of the couple.
G. Martin Freeman, who is the president of Universal Life Church Monastery, says he hopes to challenge Judge Cook's ruling. He argues that it is a direct a violation of church and state to accept some ministers but to exclude others.
Assuming Freeman's challenge fails, all of the couples in Pennsylvania who have previously had wedding ceremonies performed by mail order or internet ordained ministers will realize that they are not legally married. Their marriages are invalid. This will give an easy-out to unhappy couples who wish to split up without having file for divorce. Couples who thought they were happily married will have the option to choose a legally ordained minister or other official to make their marriages legitimate.
Heyer now conveniently agrees with Judge Cook's ruling and says that the wedding ceremony did not have legal standing. She added, 'It makes a mockery out of the whole marriage system'; Considering that she wanted the split and got it without going through a divorce, who would expect her to disagree with the ruling? However, the impact on spouses whose marriages have endured longer, and who have accumulated joint property and possibly children, may not be so simple.
There is currently pending legislation in the Pennsylvania House of Representatives that, if passed, will keep churches or congregations that offer ordinations of ministers on the internet or through the mail from being legally recognized as legitimate religious organizations.