“Marriage ceremony: an incredible metaphysical sham of watching God and the law being dragged into the affairs of your family.” – O.C. Ogilvie.
Despite googling “O.C. Ogilvie,” I was unable to determine for what he was famous, other than the above quote. However, a recent decision by a Pennsylvania court proves that Mr. Ogilvie is, indeed, insightful and worthy of recognition.
On June 30, 2006, Dorie E. Heyer and Jacob T. Hollerbush made application for a marriage license in York County, Pennsylvania. A license was issued by the Clerk of the Orphans’ Court on July 3, 2006. On August 28, 2006, Heyer and Hollerbush were married at a ceremony officiated by their friend, Adam Charles Robert Johnston.
Less than a year later, Heyer filed a motion in the York County Court of Common Pleas asking that her marriage be declared invalid. In support of her motion, Heyer asserted that Johnston was not qualified to solemnize the marriage under Pennsylvania law as he was ordained via the internet.
At the time of hearing, Johnston testified that he was ordained by making application at Universal Life Church’s website. Within five to ten minutes of making application, Johnston received his certification.
The Pennsylvania Domestic Relations Code sets forth a list of persons qualified to solemnize a marriage. Essentially, the Code authorizes Pennsylvania judges, mayors of any city or borough of Pennsylvania and ministers, priests or rabbis of any regularly established church or congregation to officiate at marriage ceremonies.
Based upon Johnston’s testimony, York County Judge Maria Musti Cook found that Johnston was not qualified to solemnize the marriage between Heyer and Hollerbush. Specifically, she found that Johnston was not a minister of any regularly established church or congregation because Johnston was not a member of the Universal Life Church prior to his internet ordination, he had not attended any meetings at any office of the Church, and he had no congregation with which he regularly or occasionally met at any place of worship. Judge cook noted that, “[a]t the very least, the statute purports to require an activity that occurs on a habitual or patterned periodic basis at a place of worship (church) or a group of individuals gathered together for the same purpose (congregation).” Accordingly, Judge Cook found that Johnston was not qualified to solemnize the marriage and, therefore, she declared the marriage void.
While Judge Cook’s decision is not binding on any other courts in Pennsylvania, there is a possibility that other Pennsylvania courts will follow suit. Moreover, there is legislation pending in Pennsylvania which seeks to define the term “regularly established church or congregation” to exclude churches or congregations through which ordination is available by mail order or via the Internet or any other electronic means. Therefore, this issue could have further-reaching implications. Some implications which come to mind include the following:
- If a marriage is declared invalid because it was solemnized by an internet-ordained minister, does the engagement ring (if any was given in consideration of marriage) have to be returned?
- Is there anything that a couple who was married by an internet-ordained minister can or should do to avoid having their marriage declared invalid?
- If marriages solemnized by internet-ordained ministers are invalid, can an insurance company which pays for health care of the alleged spouse of the insured seek reimbursement?
- If marriages solemnized by internet-ordained ministers are invalid, are government benefits paid to the alleged spouse subject to repayment (i.e., social security payments)?
- If marriages solemnized by internet-ordained ministers are invalid, are benefits paid to the surviving alleged spouse via a pension plan subject to repayment?
- If marriages solemnized by internet-ordained ministers are invalid, is a surviving alleged spouse entitled to share in the estate of a deceased alleged spouse?
- Whose responsibility is it to insure that a minister, priest or rabbi was properly ordained and/or has a regularly established church or congregation?
- What if a couple was married by an internet-ordained minister prior to the abolition of common law marriage in Pennsylvania?