Beliefnet News

By Daniel Burke
Religion News Service

The American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania filed lawsuits Thursday (Feb. 14) challenging a judge’s ruling that marriages performed by ministers without a congregation or place of worship are invalid.
The 2007 ruling, by a judge in York County, Pa., negated a marriage officiated by a minister who was ordained online through the Universal Life Church.
The decision quickly rippled across Pennsylvania, casting doubt not only on marriages celebrated by online ministers but also on the those performed by retired clergy, Hillel college rabbis and military and hospital chaplains, among others. County officials and legal analysts warned that thousands of marriages could be in legal jeopardy.
Now Pennsylvania couples in three counties whose marriages were celebrated by clergy without churches or congregations are seeking to “lift the cloud over their union” by having the courts declare them legally valid.
At least one of the three couples was told by a county clerk that the legal status of their marriage was in “grave danger.” Now they are part of a statewide campaign to publicize the potential perils facing couples who were married by certain clergy.
“What we want is to fix a problem that never should have existed in the first place,” said Mary Catherine Roper, a staff attorney with the ACLU. “The state has no business invalidating marriages just because it doesn’t like the kind of minister who officiated them.”
Pennsylvania law allows marriages to be sanctified by any “minister, priest or rabbi of any regularly established church or congregation.”
That means a legal marriage must be performed by a minister who preaches to a group of individuals on a regular basis in a physical “place of worship,” according to York County Judge Maria Musti Cook.
Some state officials have defended Cook’s ruling. David Cleaver, the solicitor for Pennsylvania’s state association of registers of wills and clerks of orphans’ courts, has called the decision “absolutely brilliant.”
“The general public, as a matter of common sense, feels that a minister is someone who preaches to a congregation or ministers to someone’s needs,” Cleaver said last year.
But Cook’s interpretation of the statute is erroneous and much too broad, the ACLU argues in the three lawsuits.
For instance, it could invalidate the 31-year marriage of plaintiffs Peter Goldberger and Anna M. Durbin of Montgomery County. They were married in 1976 by a Jesuit priest who was working for a U.S. district court judge.
It could also negate the marriages of Ryan and Allen Hancock of Philadelphia County, and Jason and Jennifer O’Neill of Bucks County, both of which were solemnized by Universal Life ministers who did not have congregations or churches.
The couples say their spousal tax and health care benefits, as well as estate planning, are in jeopardy should their marriage be declared invalid.
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