Pa. judge nullifies weddings by online ministers

Anna and Casey Pickett fell in love during a college class on Transcendental literature, reveling in the nature-loving rhapsodies of Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson.

It was only natural, then, that when the couple married last July, they would stand beside a rustic lake in Pennsylvania, with the professor whose class brought them together officiating at the ceremony.

Two months later, however, the couple got a call from a county clerk in Pennsylvania, who told them their marriage might not be valid. And years from now, the clerk said, when they bought a house, applied for government benefits or had children, they might have a problem.

"It was a total shock," said Anna Ruth Pickett, 27, who works in environmental justice for the New York-based Ford Foundation.

The problem: Their professor, T. Scott McMillen, who was not a minister, got ordained online to perform the ceremony. In September, a judge in York County, Pennsylvania, ruled that ministers who do not have a "regularly established church or congregation" cannot perform marriages under state law.

The ruling, while currently limited to York County, has sent shock waves throughout Pennsylvania. Clerks and registers have called press conferences to alert the public and predicted the end of "thousands" of marriages.

If the York precedent holds in Pennsylvania's 66 other counties, as some officials think it should, it could spawn hundreds of legal and domestic disputes, experts say.

"Things have reached a point where we're approaching some chaos," said David Cleaver, the solicitor for Pennsylvania's state association of registers of wills and clerks of orphans' court.

The American Civil Liberties Union says Pennsylvania officials have trampled the boundary between church and state and is mulling legal action.

Meanwhile, 30 state lawmakers have introduced a bill in Pennsylvania's General Assembly that would exclude wedding officiants who are ordained "by mail order or via the Internet or any other electronic means."

"To me, if you want to perform marriages, you have to go to school and learn the teachings for the correct way to perform this extremely solemn ceremony," said state Rep. Katie True, a Lancaster County Republican who co-sponsored the bill.

Adams Charles Robert Johnston hadn't done any of that, according to York County Common Pleas Judge Maria Musti Cook — the judge who issued the order — when he married two friends in August 2006.

Johnston was ordained online "in five minutes" by the Universal Life Church, Cook's ruling states. Johnston testified that he was a member of the church by virtue of his ordination but that he had never attended any church meetings, nor did he have a congregation.

Without a church or a congregation, Cook ruled, Johnston was not a minister. At the request of the wife, Dorie Heyer, 21, the marriage was declared invalid.

After the ruling, Cleaver sent an e-mail to all county clerks and registers, telling them not to accept marriage licenses from couples married by online ministers. Five days later, he sent a second e-mail, telling them to accept the licenses.

"I said to myself: Wait a minute, we're not cops. We're not entrusted to check out these licenses," he said, explaining his change of mind.

Mary Catherine Roper of the ACLU said that "lots of clergy don't have congregations but do other things, and to suggest that those are not legitimate ministers is insulting and disregarding the religious work of any number of denominations."

As Cook notes in her ruling, Pennsylvania courts have not addressed the validity of marriages performed by ministers who are ordained online through the Universal Life Church.

However, the church has a tangled history with other states' marriage laws. The Supreme Courts of New York, Virginia and North Carolina have invalidated marriages performed by Universal Life Church ministers. Courts in Mississippi and Utah, on the other hand, have ruled that the state must recognize them.

George Freeman, president of the Seattle-based Universal Life Church Monastery, which ordained Johnston and counts 6,000 ministers in Pennsylvania, said the ruling is religious "elitism."

"I guess if you're a pagan or a druid and you hang out in the woods or rocks and have a ceremony, that's not going to work," Freeman said.

The Universal Life Church Monastery, which separated from the Modesto, Calif.-based Universal Life Church in 2006 over financial and legal disputes, is split between seekers and people who want to marry their friends, Freeman said.

Claiming its only tenets are "to promote freedom of religion" and "to do that which is right," the Universal Life Church Monastery and its affiliates claim to have ordained more than 20 million people.

Roper said "dozens" of people have contacted the ACLU about the York County ruling. Among them are the Picketts.

"The fact that someone could just decide that our marriage is null and void, without us having any say about it," said Casey Pickett, "that's not a decision that someone should be able to make."