I posted a blog last week discussing a recent decision in which a marriage was declared invalid because it was officiated by an internet-ordained minister.  Interestingly, a subsequent decision by the United States District Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania indicates that a marriage ceremony, regardless of whether it is religious or secular in nature, can be valid without having it solemnized by any 3rd party. Rather, the parties can just do it themselves.

In Knelly v. Wagner, instead of having their marriage solemnized by a minister or judge, the parties had a self-uniting marriage ceremony in which they simply exchanged rings and vows before a gathering of family and friends. According to Pennsylvania law, parties can solemnize their own marriage in a religious ceremony, without officiating clergy, provided they obtain a self-uniting marriage license and the marriage is witnessed by at least two witnesses. 23 Pa.C.S.A. §§1502-1504.  However, in this case, the parties planned a secular, rather than a religious, ceremony.

In preparation for their wedding, the parties went to the Register of Wills in Allegheny County, Pennsylvania and requested a self-uniting marriage license. They were told that they could not get a self-uniting license unless they supplied documentation evidencing that they were members of the Quaker or B’Hai faiths (two religions that do not have officiating clergy).  Not being able to provide that documentation, they sought an injunction to compel the Allegheny County Register of Wills to issue them a self-uniting marriage license. In support of their request for an injunction, their attorneys asserted, among other things, that the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution bars government from providing a benefit to members of one religion that is not provided to members of other religions, or of no religion. The Court agreed with the couple, and issued a Temporary Restraining Order requiring the Register of Wills to issue them a self-uniting marriage license. Two days later they married.

It is ironic that this self-uniting secular marriage is valid, while the marriage officiated in York County by the internet-ordained minister was not.  In the one case, the court overlooked the statutory requirement of a religious ceremony based upon the First Amendment.  In the other, the court found that the officiating minister was not qualified because he did not have a regularly established church or congregation. Reading the cases together, it is reasonable to conclude that, had the York County couple married in a self-uniting ceremony, they would not have needed a third person to solemnize their marriage, and the fact that their minister was internet-ordained would have made no difference. Therefore, if you want to get married and do not want to take any chances that the person solemnizing your marriage is qualified, just do it yourself.