Couples fight ruling nullifying marriage ordained by Universal Life Church minister

After dating for five years, Jason and Jennifer O’Neill were married in 2005 at Bensalem’s Belle Voir Manor. Robert Norman, Jason’s uncle and an Internet-ordained minister of the Universal Life Church, conducted the ceremony.

Last September, Jason got a phone call from his mother.

You might not be married, she told him.

“There was no question in our mind that that (the marriage) was completely legitimate,” said Jason. The Conshohocken couple and Norman, a New Hope resident, contacted the ACLU about taking the issue to court.

Universal Life Church

The Universal Life Church (or ULC) is a religious organization that offers anyone semi-immediate ordination as a ULC minister free of charge. The organization states that anyone can become a minister immediately, without having to go through the pre-ordination process required by other religious faiths.

The issue arose after a September decision by a York County judge invalidating a 10-month marriage because the officiant — who was ordained online by the Universal Life Church — didn’t qualify as a minister under state law because he had no regular congregation or church.

Since the judge’s decision, registers of wills across Pennsylvania have been warning people applying for marriage licenses that their unions may be void if they are solemnized by “itinerant ministers.”

The ACLU filed the first three lawsuits in a planned statewide effort to address what they contend is a flaw in the state marriage law.

“What we want is to fix a problem that never should have existed in the first place,” ACLU attorney Mary Catherine Roper said. “The state has no business invalidating marriages just because it doesn’t like the kind of minister who officiated them.”

The couples in the three ACLU lawsuits — including the O’Neills, who filed in Bucks County, are seeking judicial declarations that their marriages are valid under state law.

“For a judge to retroactively decide … that our marriage is no longer valid seems unfair and hurtful for both of us,” said Ryan Hancock, who was married to his wife, Melanie, in 2005 by a friend who was a Universal Life Church minister.

In their suit filed in Montgomery County, the Hancocks said they chose their officiant because they come from different religious backgrounds and did not want to favor one faith over the other.

The couple in the Philadelphia case, Peter Goldberger and Anna Durbin, were married in 1976 by a Jesuit priest who at the time was not affiliated with a specific congregation.

Roper said more lawsuits will be filed in other counties “until people get the idea that this is not part of the marriage law.”

“There is no good-enough minister test in the statute,” she said.

Jason and Jennifer, both 28, come from mixed religious backgrounds. As they weighed their options for how to get married, they felt having Jason’s uncle preside over the wedding would allow for a ceremony that reflected their beliefs as a couple.

“We thought, well, what a better way to get married than by someone who loves us, who really cares about us?” Jason said.

The couple and Norman spent two months making phone calls, including some to the Bucks County Register of Wills Office, to make sure the Internet-ordained minister could legally perform a wedding in Pennsylvania. After being assured he could, the O’Neills were married.

They’ve filed taxes, bought a house, secured health and life insurance together in their first two years of marriage. Remarrying before a judge or legally recognized religious leader would ensure their marriage was binding, but the couple worries that could look like they admit deceiving the state with their marriage. If one of them got sick, the other could end up without health coverage if it was determined they got the insurance before they were a couple, Jason said.

Norman called the York County ruling “outrageous.” He said it’s a shame that a legally married couple now has to go through a lot of trouble they don’t need. The York County judge does not have the authority to rewrite state law, he said.

“While he’s infringing on Jason and Jennifer’s rights, he’s infringing on mine,” Norman said.

He has performed a wedding and a civil ceremony in New Jersey, and plans to perform another wedding there in three months. The O’Neills are the only couple Norman has married in Pennsylvania.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.


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Religion News Blog posted this on Friday February 15, 2008.
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