ACLU sues over Pennsylvania marriage law

February 14, 2008 8:30:50 PM PST
The Pennsylvania chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union filed the first three lawsuits in a planned statewide effort to address what they contend is a flaw in the state marriage law.

Registers of wills in some counties have been telling couples who are married or about to be married that their unions aren't valid when performed by someone who does not have a regular congregation or house of worship.

The couples in the three ACLU lawsuits - filed in Bucks, Montgomery and Philadelphia county courts on Thursday - are seeking judicial declarations that their marriages are valid under state law.

Two of the couples were married by ministers ordained online; the third couple was married by a Jesuit priest who was clerking for a federal judge and wasn't assigned to a church.

"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 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 suits contend that such a classification would also include Jesuit professors, rabbis at college Hillels, and other ordained church authorities, as well as clergy who are retired or assigned to hospitals and military posts.

David Cleaver, solicitor for the statewide Association of Registers of Wills and Clerks of Orphans Court, was out of town and did not respond to an e-mail seeking comment on the suits.

"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 that our marriage is no longer valid seems unfair and hurtful for both of us," said Ryan Hancock, who was married to his wife, Melanie, in 2005 by a friend who was a Universal Life Church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 plaintiffs in the Bucks County lawsuit, Jason and Jennifer O'Neill, said they were married in 2005 by Jason O'Neill's uncle, a Universal Life minister, for the same reason as the Hancocks.

The couple in the Philadelphia case, Peter Goldberger and Anna Durbin, were married in 1976 by a Jesuit minister 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.