There was good news yesterday for Jason and Jennifer O'Neill, a Philadelphia couple whose 2005 Bucks County marriage had been thrown into question because they used a minister ordained online. For many other similarly situated couples, too.
Bucks County Court Judge C. Theodore Fritsch Jr. declared the marriage valid, even though the minister - Jason O'Neill's uncle, Robert A. Norman - had been ordained in a matter of minutes by the Universal Life Church after completing a short form online.
Similar rulings have been issued in Montgomery County and Philadelphia County (where I live). There are now three counties in Pennsylvania where I can legally perform rites. There is still an issue with York County though. For those of you not familiar with York County, it's Jesusland Pennsylvania. The Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District trial over teaching Intelligent Design was in the heart of York County. And it was a York County judge who had invalidated weddings performed by ministers who had received online ordination, because said ministers "did not regularly preach in a church or have an actual congregation." That ruling is often cited by clerks in other Pennsylvania counties as justification for denying marriage certificates to couples. That is exactly what happened to Jason and Jennifer O'Neill.
"Statewide, thousands of couples will be relieved by this decision, but the threat is not completely absent unless they live in Bucks County," Kaplowitz (of Drinker, Biddle & Reath, who represented the O'Neills on behalf of the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania) said.
In the last 10 years, engaged couples, particularly those from different religions like the O'Neills, have increasingly sought to personalize their weddings by having the ceremonies performed by friends ordained online or by non-denominational individuals whose presence would not offend their families' religious practices.
That trend drew the ire of some county clerks and registers of wills statewide, who called the practice an affront to the institution of marriage and sought to disqualify so-called online officiants.
Among them was Bucks County Clerk of Orphans' Court Barbara G. Reilly, who launched a public-information campaign about the York County ruling. Reilly advised Bucks County couples to reapply for marriage licenses, and 36 couples were remarried as a result.
Reilly said she had not yet studied Fritsch's ruling, but found the news "puzzling."
"If the judge is right, then the law is wrong," Reilly said. "The law is flawed and must be restructured."
"I guess this means a minister from the Church of the Wineskins, for example - that's another one I've dealt with - would have to prove his church meets at least the same criteria as the ULC," Reilly said.
If I may chime in, the "law" (I assume she's referring the York County ruling) is indeed wrong and needs to be not just restructured, but overturned. In fact, let me just state here in public that I would like a minister from the Church of the Wineskins to conduct my wake. Take that, Reilly!
The other thing that really bothered me about this was the clerks who called "the practice an affront to the institution of marriage". Does that language sound familiar? I'm not going to pretend that the York County ruling is the assault to civil liberties that prop h8 is, but it is basically the same people behind it and they're using the same rhetoric. I'm not exactly sure what the law is in Pennsylvania regarding gay marriage, but I believe that it is neither recognized by the State, nor explicitly banned in the constitution. So if you're a gay Philadelphia couple that wants to make a statement, and you're looking for an unconventional and inexperienced minister to marry you, give me a call.