William Hoffmeyer Reflects on Being an Internet Ordained Minister
Are internet ordained ministers legally valid in Pennsylvania?
Over a number of years, I acted as the Master of Ceremonies at approximately 12 weddings, both in Pennsylvania and, on one occasion, in Florida for my son, Steve. Since Pennsylvania was a Quaker state, the law in those days permitted a couple to marry themselves. I certainly had no authority to declare them a husband and wife; however, I, at their request, would read various poems or other writings that they wanted to be read during the wedding ceremony, and then they would exchange their vows themselves, indicating that they were taking each other as husband and wife. In no instance were any of the parties, the future bride and groom or me, members of the Quaker church.
Pennsylvania Law on Solemnization of Marriages
The most recent amendment to the Marriage Act (23 Pa.C.S.A. §1101, etc.) known as “Persons Qualified to Solemnize Marriages”, 23 Pa.CS (Pennsylvania Consolidated Statutes), Section 1503, states specifically that there are specific persons authorized to solemnize marriages between persons who produce a marriage license issued under this particular section. Thereafter is a list of publicly-elected officials: a district magistrate, a judge of the Courts of Common Pleas, a judge or full-time magistrate of the District Courts of the United States for the Eastern, Middle, or Western District of Pennsylvania, a bankruptcy judge of the United States Bankruptcy Courts for the Eastern, Middle, or Western District of Pennsylvania who is a resident of the Commonwealth, a judge of the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit who is a resident of this Commonwealth, a mayor of any city or borough, a former mayor of any city or borough of the Commonwealth who hasn’t been defeated for reelection and has not been involved in any conviction of a misdemeanor in Pennsylvania, a minister, priest or rabbi of any regularly-established church or congregation. This particular section then defines the term “religious organizations” as “Every religious society, religious institution, or religious organization in this Commonwealth may join persons together in marriage when at least one of the persons (emphasis added) is a member of the society, institution, or organization, according to the rules and customs of the society, institution, or organization.” This particular section concludes by requiring that anybody who is married legally in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania must do so with a marriage license and that no person or religious organization qualified to perform marriages shall officiate a marriage ceremony without the parties (bride and groom) having obtained a marriage license.
Recent Case Law
All that being said, there is a recent history of three Courts of Common Pleas’ decisions on this particular subject which, hopefully, as far as the most recent case is concerned, shed some light on the legality of a marriage officiated by a minister who has been ordained through the internet by a regularly-established religious organization. The first case came out of the Orphans Court of Montgomery County, Pennsylvania, in which the principal issue was whether a decedent’s (the now deceased groom) “close personal friend” was qualified to officiate. The opinion stated that the friend had applied for an “on-line” credentials at the website with the easiest process. He did not recall the name of the website or the church and could not locate the document he had received but that he was satisfied that he could perform the ceremony and agreed that he would not have officiated if he thought he was not ordained. This particular church involved was the “First Nation Church & Ministry” that indicated that the individual had been ordained on October 29, 2012, and had been assigned a minister’s license number. The history of the church was submitted to the court, tracing the church’s roots to the Cherokee Baptist Circuit Church founded in 1938. The Court in its decision cited two previous cases in Pennsylvania, both involving the Universal Life Church, each of which reached opposing conclusions. The one opinion granted the relief based on the fact that the officiant received credentials within five to ten minutes of applying to a “church” of which he was not a member, of which he had never attended any meetings, in which he had no place of worship or congregation that gathered together for the same purpose. This court opinion found the marriage to be void. However, in another Court of Common Pleas decision (Bucks County) where the bride’s uncle had obtained his credentials more than three years prior to the ceremony and testified that he took his position as the minister of the Universal Life Church seriously and that he counseled the couple to ensure that they were ready for marriage. This court found the marriage to be valid and that the officiant’s ordination to be valid. In the most recent opinion the judge noted that “The officiant and the couple all believe the officiant ‘had the authority to perform the wedding’, that ‘friends and family in attendance…no doubt assumed the same,’ and the couple acted ‘knowingly and voluntarily…in pursuit of a valid certificate of marriage’”. The judge also stated “The problems that caused common-law marriages to be disfavored in the courts and ultimately outlawed by the legislature…the lack of ceremony that made the existence of the marriage difficult to prove and the fact that an oral contract to wed was viewed as a fruitful source of perjury and fraud…have no relevance here. Under these circumstances, we believe it would be manifestly unfair to declare that there was no marriage.” The Court’s opinion deals with the requirement of the “Marriage Act” in this manner: “Where there is evidence that a person has been authorized as a ‘minister’ of a ‘regularly-established religious organization’, this Court will not nor should it inquire into the religious precepts, teaching, or counseling related to the marriage ceremony or otherwise provided by any church, religious organization, or congregation. We adopted the broad reading of the Act enunciated by the Court in the O’Neill case and credit First Nation Church and Ministry’s long history and non-profit status.”
Ordained as a Minister
I, personally, did apply for and was ordained as a minister in the Universal Life Church in October of this year and received my Honorary Doctor of Divinity degree on December 14, 2017. I applied for ordination by the Universal Life Church at the request of very good, long-time friends of mine, who wanted to be married on the day after Christmas, 2017, in St. Michaels, Maryland, where the bride’s mother and father reside. I have known the bride since 1992 and was involved with the groom, a fellow attorney, in a commercial real estate transaction, in the early 1970s. They both contacted me and requested that I become ordained because they were not comfortable and not satisfied with having an elected official conducting their ceremony, and they are not and have not been attendees at any particular religious organization for many, many years. I personally find the philosophies of the Universal Life Church to be very similar to my own philosophies and am quite comfortable in taking the position that I am now a member of that church and have now conducted a beautiful ceremony at the Inn at Perry Cabin in St. Michaels, Talbot County, Maryland, which county fully accepts, and for some period of time has accepted, marriages performed by ordained ministers of the Universal Life Church.
York Pennsylvania and Internet-Ordained Ministers
With regard to York County, Pennsylvania, or for that matter any other county in Pennsylvania, I truly think that any couple who desires to be married by an internet-ordained minister should consult legal counsel as to the potential opinion in an appellate case in Pennsylvania that such marriages may be void. It would be my opinion that, to be absolutely certain that your marriage would be valid, that you have the marriage performed in a county in Maryland or other state that officially recognizes a marriage by a licensed minister of the Universal Life Church or a similar such church which provides ordinations through the internet. For additional questions about Internet-ordained ministers and Pennsylvania family law, contact William Hoffmeyer at our York PA law office today.