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I Now [Cannot] Pronounce You Man and Wife

James W. Cushing, Esq. on 6/5/2009

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            We have all seen the occasion, either in person or on television or the movies: the beautiful wedding with all the accoutrements.  The beautiful blushing bride standing next to her nervous, but happy, groom in the flower-adorned religious facility, flanked by the wedding party in traditional gowns and tuxedos, being lovingly viewed by the congregation gathered.  At the apex of the scene, between the bridge and groom, stands the clergyperson delivering customary and appropriate words of inspiration.  The entire process leads to the climactic moment when the bride and groom gaze into one another’s eyes and the clergyperson says those very familiar words: “by the power vested in me by the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, I now pronounce you man and wife.”  Exuding joy and elation, the newly married couple shares a symbolic kiss and exits the religious facility in newly wedded bliss to enter a car, dragging tin cans in its wake, to announce their nuptials.

Amidst the joy and happiness, no one stops to wonder at what seems to be a very obvious question: what if the “power” was not “vested” in the clergyperson to marry the engaged couple?  One York County couple, however, did think to ask the question in the case of Heyer v. Hollerbush, Court of Common Pleas of York County, Pennsylvania No. 2007-SU-2132-Y08 (September 7, 2007).  In Heyer, the couple was married by a Universal Life Church minister.  After about one year of marriage, Heyer filed a Motion for Declaratory Judgment against Hollerbush requesting the Court to declare the marriage invalid.  Heyer argued that the “power” to marry a couple was not “vested” in a Universal Life Church minister by the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.  Pennsylvania vests the power on clergy to marry individuals under 23 Pa.C.S.A. Section 1503.  Section 1503(a)(6) states that “the following are authorized to solemnize marriage between persons that produce a marriage license issued under this part: A minister, priest or rabbi of any regularly established church or congregation.”  Heyer argued that a “minister” “ordained” in the Universal Life Church does not fit the criterion laid out under Section 1503(a)(6).

The Universal Life Church “ordains” interested individuals over the Internet or through the mail via a simple application.  No seminary, training, endorsements, or sponsorship is required; indeed, beyond a completed application there are no requirements for ordinands whatsoever.  Ordination is considered conferred upon review of the application by a human as the Church believes that people are born ordained and the completion/review of the application merely acknowledges this fact.  The Universal Life Church has no meeting places, no form of religious observance, no holy book or sacred traditions, and is entirely non-ecclesiastic.  Its creed consists of one undefined, unexplained and unexpanded upon sentence: “Do only that which is right.”  Given the preceding, the Court in Heyer ruled that a “minister” ordained in the Universal Life Church does not fit the requirements of Section 1503(a)(6).  Essentially, the Court reasoned that as such a minister does not have a “regularly established church or congregation,” and Section 1503(a)(6) therefore does not vest the power to marry on him or her.  As a result, the Court ruled that the couple in Heyer were never actually married, declaring the marriage void ab initio (i.e.: from its inception).

Following the Heyer decision, the American Civil Liberties Union took on this issue by filing similar cases in the counties of Philadelphia (In Re: Ryan Allen Hancock and Melanie Bilenker Han, No. 080201774), Montgomery (In Re: Marriage of Peter Goldberger and Anna M. Durbin, No, 2008-21497), and Bucks (In Re: Marriage of Jason O’Neill and Jennifer R. O’Neill, No.: 2008-01620), requesting the Court to declare the validity of those marriages.  Similar to the Heyer matter, the cases in Philadelphia and Bucks Counties each involved a wedding presided over by a Universal Life Church minister.  In each of these cases, the Court disagreed with the Heyer Court and ruled that a Universal Live Church minister does fit the criteria of Section 1503(a)(6).  The Court essentially ruled that the Court in Heyer narrowly and incorrectly interpreted Section 1503(a)(6); that a “regularly established church or congregation” does not exclude ministers without a congregation or physical church.  Further, the Court was persuaded by the fact that the Universal Life Church is a well-established religion recognized as such by its tax-exempt status.  Finally, it appears that the Court simply refused to involve itself in the affairs of religion, consistent with the tenor of the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment of the United States Constitution.  Ultimately in these cases the Court declared the couples validly married.

The marriage at issue in the case in Montgomery County was presided over by a Jesuit priest ordained by the Roman Catholic Church.  The Jesuit priest was an itinerant priest who had no congregation of his own and no assignment to any parish.  The Court again disagreed with the Court in Heyer using similar logic as found in the other two cases.  However, it ought to be noted that reaching this decision regarding a Roman Catholic priest was much less groundbreaking as the previous cases because he was ordained by a well recognized and time-honored religion with extremely defined and established doctrines.  This case, however, is significant inasmuch as it lends support to the principle that a clergyperson does not need a physical church or congregation to formally and officially pronounce a couple married.

             At this point, there is no standard interpretation and application of Section 1503(a)(6) across the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania as a whole.  Only the four counties mentioned above have addressed the interpretation and/or application of Section 1503(a)(6); the remaining counties have yet to make a ruling.  It is doubtful that there will be any uniformity on this issue until it is addressed by at least Superior Court, but it will likely require a definitive ruling from the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania.  Therefore, if one intends to be married, one should take consideration of whether the clergyperson presiding over the wedding does, indeed, have the power vested in him or her to do so in the county in which the wedding will occur.  Who knows, perhaps reviewing a clergyperson’s curriculum vitae will become a standard part of wedding planning for the foreseeable future. However, whether these married couples will live together until death parts them is another story altogether.

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  • 10/22/2009 by

    The law permits non-religious marriage however, under the law, only persons licensed by the state can officiate at a wedding and that includes both secular and religious officials. If a cleric of some sort wishes to officiate at a wedding, s/he must fulfill the requirements of the statute as presently written. For over 1000 years clergy have been required at weddings in order to ensure that they actually took place, vows were exchanged, and essential criteria for a marriage were met. In modern times, various legal issues arise when one gets married which effect property ownership, estate laws, taxes and many other things. To that end, the state has an overriding interest in ensuring the weddings that are alleged to occur actually result in legitimate marriages. Creating a set of criteria for those who officiate a marriage is consistent with the state’s aforesaid interest. The issue addressed in this article is how far the state can go to determine what makes a clergyman a clergyman.

  • 10/22/2009 by James W. Cushing, Esquire

    I forgot to mention that the above comment is by me! Sorry.

  • 5/24/2011 by Anonymous

    Why bother to proceed under § 1503(a)(6) where § 1503(b) would seem to lie? I struggle to understand why the legislature would bother to note that "[e]very religious society, religious institution or religious organization", as opposed to "[a] minister, priest or rabbi of any regularly established church or congregation", may "join persons together in marriage", as opposed to the persons under the general rule solemnizing marriages as authorized by the Commonwealth.

    The use of what could be simple terms of art in the same section make construction more troublesome, as does the separating out (b) from the persons authorized in (a). The societies/organizations/institutions in (b) do not seem to require any license at all.

    If common law marriage is to be revoked, and there are societies/organizations/institutions where there is no "minister, priest, or rabbi", it seems like subsection (b) carves out another class of lawful officiants.

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