Is a marriage ceremony performed by a minister who received his ordination over the Internet any less genuine than one performed by a traditional member of the clergy? Does it devalue the sanctity of marriage in Utah?
Those are just two questions U.S. District Judge Dale A. Kimball is considering after hearing arguments Thursday about the constitutionality of a new statute passed by the 2001 Legislature.
The law, signed by Gov. Mike Leavitt in March but halted from taking effect until Kimball issues his ruling, states that certification, licensure, ordination or any other endorsement received by a person through application over the Internet or by mail that purports to give that person religious authority is not valid.
Salt Lake attorney Brian Barnard filed a federal lawsuit against the new law in April on behalf of J.P. Pace, a Salt Lake man and ordained minister of the Universal Life Church. Pace applied for and received his ordination through the mail.
Barnard on Thursday argued the law serves no rational purpose and violates Pace's constitutional rights to free exercise of religion, equal protection and due process.
The solemnizing of marriages is a key part of Pace's religion, Barnard said, and the statute meddles in his fundamental right to practice that religion.
Clearly, people have a fundamental right to get married, but is there a fundamental right out there to perform marriages? Kimball asked.
According to the lawsuit, the Universal Life Church, a nonprofit organization headquartered in Modesto, Calif., uses the Internet and the U.S. Postal Service extensively in its work and ministries.
If upheld, the law would curb that activity, therefore interfering in the day-to-day business of the church, Barnard said.
The state of Utah has no business dictating to a religion how they should function internally, Barnard said.
Assistant Attorney General Joel Ferre argued the state does have the right to regulate marriage, which is what the statute aims to do.
Without such provisions, Ferre said every person in the state of Utah would be allowed to perform marriage ceremonies.
Nothing prevents you from sending the name of your dog over the Internet and getting them ordained as a minister in the church, Ferre said.
Ordination applications over the telephone or in person, regardless of the religion or church, are OK under the new law.
Kimball took the matter under advisement and will issue a ruling at a later date. The temporary restraining order against the new law will remain in effect until then.