What part of "make no law" don't they understand?

The Universal Life Church has been around for 47 years. Founded by the late Kirby Hensley (a man I met many years ago), the church takes an extremely broad, extremely liberal view of man's relationship to the unknown force or forces that many people call deities.

Do only that which is right.
(Lord knows I try.) Moreover, they will ordain anyone. I've known a number of ULC ministers, and in California I attended more than one ULC-officiated wedding. The legality of marriages performed by ULC ministers was, I thought, long-settled.

The idea is that while the civil authorities (in the form of the state) possess the power to regulate marriage by issuing licenses, the nature of the religious ceremony and the qualifications of a minister are beyond government purview.

Not, however, in Pennsylvania. A couple in York county decided they wanted to marry so they filled out the forms, paid the fee, obtained the marriage license, and then married each other in a ceremony officiated by a ULC minister.

Like a lot of marriages, theirs ran into trouble in the first year, but unlike most divorce-seekers, they decided that the marital difficulties somehow resulted from a defect in the minister's credentials. Amazingly, a judge agreed with them:

Are marriages valid if performed by people who were "ordained" by online churches in a matter of minutes and have no congregation? Answer: No.

In a York County case, a Common Pleas Court judge invalidated a 10-month marriage, finding that a friend of the bride's who officiated at the wedding didn't have the power to do so under Pennsylvania law even though he had been ordained online by the Universal Life Church. The judge ruled the friend didn't qualify as a minister under state law because he had no regular congregation or place of worship.

A state lawmaker is sponsoring an amendment that would prevent those who have received quickie ordinations from performing marriages in the future.

"Right now, the marriage law in Pennsylvania is in a state of upheaval," said David Cleaver, solicitor for the statewide Association of Registers of Wills and Clerks of Orphans Court, the two row offices that issue marriage licenses in Pennsylvania. "I would love the legislature to clarify this because then we would all be reading the same sheet of music."

Pennsylvania first put its marriage law in writing in 1682, but that has not stopped it from being interpreted differently, county by county, ever since.

The court's ruling, while limited to York County, is already causing chaos in Pennsylvania, with many couples who were married by "alternative" style ministers now worrying whether their marriages are legitimate. This has received national attention:
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.

And of course, there's been a lot of discussion about the bill which would spell out ministerial "qualifications":
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.

But what are the "teachings for the correct way"? Baptists traditionally allow anyone to lay claim to being a minister, the argument being that it is a "calling." From God. And there are numerous types of ceremonies. Couples aren't actually "married" by anyone; they marry each other and they are traditionally allowed to do so in any way they see fit. Atheists and pagans might want to commune with nature or dance around the fire and have a feast. Since when do these things become the business of the government? Isn't it the right of the couple to select whomever they choose to officiate -- or not? Traditional Quaker weddings have no ministers, couples simply declare in front of the congregants that they are marrying each other.

Nevertheless, the York County judge (in a decision I think is eminently reversible) decided that ministers must have credentials of the sort he deems worthy of state approval:

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.

MaryCatherine 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."

The ACLU is right.

In its 47 year existence, the ULC has not changed its doctines. Anyone who wants to become a minister can be ordained by filling out their form and agreeing to their simple religious guidelines.

I think the sudden firestorm is grounded in the fact that ordinations can now be obtained online. Big effing deal. What makes one form of communication between humans more suspect than another? Suppose a religious-minded blogger decided to form the Divine Church of the Holy Blog, and decided upon a common set of beliefs, based on articulable principles known and understood and agreed to by all interested joiners. Why wouldn't their congregation ("Holy Blogroll") and place of abode be just as valid as any other? What business is it of the government to decide?

But somehow, the fact of online ULC ordination is seen as tainting the ordination in a manner in which it wouldn't be tainted if obtained by mail. I think making any inquiries into the nature of beliefs and qualifications of any minister is beyond the purview of the state.

Quite incidentally, I'd even say this about crackpot denominations run by self-appointed freelance ministers with whose tenets I disagree.

Last night I wrote a blog post about two fringe type "street preachers" -- one of whom was ordained by the "God Hates Fags" Church. Much as I dislike their religious doctrines, their credentials are not the state's business, and they are just as free to perform marriages as anyone else.

Moreover, there are 6000 ULC ministers in Pennsylvania, and I am sure that there are many weddings at which they've officiated.

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."

Internal disputes within the ULC (there's also a The Universal Life Monastery) are about as relevant to the state's right to regulate ordination as internal disputes within the Episcopal Church. But this raises another interesting question: suppose an Episcopal priest is thrown out of his local church by the church hierarchy, and suppose he is defrocked. Shouldn't he be free to start another denomination? Isn't that one of the reasons we have the First Amendment?

Anyway, I think the Picketts are right. As to the ULC, they plan to fight the decision, and it appears they also plan to fight the ridiculous ordination law:

The brevity of this marriage, as with many others in America, reflects not on the Universal Life Church minister but on the couple. It is inappropriate for Ms. Heyer to blame the failure of her marriage on the ULC administered ceremony.

We have not seen Judge Cook's decision regarding the authorization of Adam Johnston to perform marriages under Pennsylvania statutes. It is our position that any infringement upon the rights of our ministers is an infringement on the protections of the First Amendment which guarantees:

"Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof;..."

As such, it is apparent that Judge Cook's decision is an impermissible attack upon the constitution. Moreover, the Universal Life Church Monastery is prepared to take the following action:

1. Seek Constitutional counsel licensed in the state of Pennsylvania to bring action in the United States District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania. [42 USC 1985]
2. Name the county officials in their individual and official capacity in a Federal lawsuit for making arbitrary and capricious decisions under the color of law.
3. Seek a declaratory judgment asking that the Federal Judiciary enjoin York County officials and the state of PA from making further decisions as to the legitimacy of one church over another.

It's an outrage.

Marriage licenses are state created, so it is natural to expect people to talk about "safeguarding" the institution of marriage in that respect. Religious ordination, however, is not a state created institution, and the state simply has no business there.

If the state can get into the institution of ordination, and regulate credentials of ministers, what's to stop it from getting into the credentials of journalists, and regulate online journalism?

I better ordain myself as an online journalist fast, before they close the "loophole."

UPDATE: I'm honored to see that this post has been ordained! My thanks to Blogfather Reynolds for linking this post, and a warm welcome to all.

All are free to gather here and comment. Absolutely no credentials required.

UPDATE: My thanks to Eugene Volokh for linking this post in a very interesting discussion.

UPDATE: My thanks to Sean Kinsell for linking this post in a great one of his own. Don't miss Sean's thoughts.

And be sure to read his earlier post on the subject of what makes a religion "legitimate."

AND MORE: In addition to the First Amendment to the United States Constitution (which applies to the states), the Pennsylvania bill in question also appears to violate the Pennsylvania Constitution:

Religious Freedom
Section 3.

All men have a natural and indefeasible right to worship Almighty God according to the dictates of their own consciences; no man can of right be compelled to attend, erect or support any place of worship or to maintain any ministry against his consent; no human authority can, in any case whatever, control or interfere with the rights of conscience, and no preference shall ever be given by law to any religious establishments or modes of worship.

I don't see how giving a preference to those who "go to school and learn the teachings for the correct way" can be squared with that.

posted by Eric on 11.12.07 at 09:45 AM


Legal marriage is largely superfluous and should be dispensed with. Matters would be simpler and less acrimonious if the state would get out of the legal marriage business altogether. If people want to say they were married in church, fine. If people want to live together fine. If people want to commingle assets, fine. If people want to have or adopt kids together, fine. Why not allow people to construct their own contracts regarding assets. The cynical and the wealthy already do with pre-nuptial agreements. Each state already has a large body of law regarding the welfare of children.

Jardinero1   ·  November 12, 2007 10:53 AM

The marriage license is the only real legal document. I got my ULC "ordination" certificate nearly 30 years ago just for fun but the only marriage I ever performed was for two of my dogs. :)

Patrick Joubert Conlon   ·  November 12, 2007 11:17 AM

Many good points,I agree."I believe in ALLANISIM" This is a religion formed by taking the best parts,the noble,the honest,the laws of the belief sets of all the main faith,that most of us use to guide our life.For example:We all believe (Telling a lie) is a bad thing,but whom of us have not. Check my blog I have a lot to say about this.

eath   ·  November 12, 2007 12:10 PM

In Kansas, where I live, we have common law marriage, so all the happy couple needs to do is rent a hall, hire a caterer, invite two or three hundred of their closest friends, and announce they're married. As long as you meet the requirements of present intent to marry, legal capacity to marry and holding out to the public as being married, not even a clergyperson is required, although it's considered good form to have one.
Federalism...not just a good idea.

Uncle Pavian   ·  November 12, 2007 2:37 PM

You are completely right, of course, but when I read that Ms. Pickett "works in environmental justice for the New York-based Ford Foundation" my SchadenfreudeMesser(tm) went off the charts.

Sucks when the govt gets involved where it doesn't belong, huh?

r   ·  November 12, 2007 2:48 PM

Aw, hell, I just remembered that I'm a ULC minister, Internet ordained back in the 90's.

As I recall, one of my motivations for ordination was to thumb my nose @ the .gov, who has no business determining religious orthodoxies.

If the Xenu fearing Scientologists are deemed a valid religion, then it's full tilt yippeee ki yay anything goes, ya know?

geekWithA.45   ·  November 12, 2007 2:52 PM

As Ronald Reagan once told some people who were agitating for the State of California to "legalize" gay marriage:

"Now hold on here a minute. When you get in bed with the government, you're going to get more than just a good night's sleep."

Letalis Maximus, Esq.   ·  November 12, 2007 3:22 PM

Interesting. Under this ruling, is the Pope a minister?

PersonFromPorlock   ·  November 12, 2007 4:09 PM

I was ordained person more than 30 years ago (and not by the ULC). I have never been a congregational minister, but have spent my life working with not-for-profit groups. Keeping the state out of the ordination process seems to me to be one of the essentials of church/state separation.

Paul from Jefferson   ·  November 12, 2007 4:32 PM

Keeping the state out of the ordination business is fine, but shouldn't the state have some say about who is or isn't authorized to officiate state business? If marriage is a legally binding contract and PA wants to pass a law that only clergy who have completed some level of educational or certification requirements are authorized to officiate marriages, then they should be able to do so. I'm sure the judges that officiate in divorce courts have to meet some state regulations, so why shouldn't ministers performing marriages?
Of course, the law needs to spell out the requirements, they must not relate to specific religious teachings, etc., which seems to be the problem in this situation.

JeanE   ·  November 12, 2007 5:35 PM
Legal marriage is largely superfluous and should be dispensed with.
That quoted comment goes too far. Under the best of circumstances, people do poorly at writing detailed contracts for themselves. When people are starry-eyed, the contract drafting will deteriorate further. Both the individuals involved and society a a whole needs for people to enter into formal relationships with well-defined legal consequences. People who forgo the formality and merely live together sometimes run into legal probelms because of it.

I don't care if the formality is just jointly signing a register at the courthouse, but we need the formality. I agree, however, that government should stay out of the religious aspects of marriage.
KenB   ·  November 12, 2007 6:05 PM

It probably was in the late 1970s that I ran into an old acquaintence. During the course of the conversation, I learned that he was a ULC minister. Delighted, I asked how I could get ordained, too. He looked over the top of the hippie newspaper he was reading and said, "You're ordained." It turns out that, according to local law, I was.
You now may treat me with awe.

Bleepless   ·  November 12, 2007 6:12 PM

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; ...
Seems pretty simple. Can't say what it is or how to do it. If you hold yourself out to be a minister, you are. If two people believe they are married and show some outward public manefestation of that state of being, the State hasn't the power to say it isn't so.

John   ·  November 12, 2007 7:09 PM

"Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion,... "

I'm no intellectual like you folks, so when the Constitution says "Congress", I interpret that to mean Congress.

Call me crazy.

mockmook   ·  November 12, 2007 7:32 PM

So unlike John, when I see "Congress", I don't read "State of Pennsylvania", nor "York County".

Why can't they set local rules?

mockmook   ·  November 12, 2007 7:37 PM
"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.

Guess I'd better not move to Pennsylvania, where it sounds like my marriage will not be recognized. I'm a Mormon; we don't have a professional clergy. The elder that married me certainly hadn't gone to school to learn how to perform marriages, unless you count Sunday School.

...And, come to think of it, why shouldn't you?

Anonymous   ·  November 13, 2007 1:03 PM
"That quoted comment goes too far. Under the best of circumstances, people do poorly at writing detailed contracts for themselves."

That doesn't seem like a good reason for government to step in. People often manage their money poorly, their jobs, their debt and credit, but nonetheless manage themselves in a passable fashion (and even if they don't, the alternative is government management, and we all know how that goes).

Besides, for people who don't know how to manage their money, there are banks. For their debt and credit, there's H&R block. For their taxes, there's the shelf behind the games in Best Buy. And, yes, for marriage there are lawyers and pre-nups.

As a side note, folks have to get over the stigma of the prenuptial agreement. There is all sorts of unpleasantness that people are willing to plan for. Life insurance, living wills, retirement plans, medical alert bracelets - all common protections people employ for the future and it's travails. Better to agree when you're starry-eyed and willing to compromise than when you're blinded by the rage only marriage can inspire.

Jared G.   ·  November 13, 2007 4:55 PM

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion...

Speaking of which, kindly let me know when we can technically conflate religion and philosophy 'cause I'm going to petition the SCOTUS to outlaw every domestic program known to man.

Can't but help establish a philosophy when you go around outlawing/proscribing/categorizing/issuing rights to or taking rights away from/generally dicking around in religion like we do.

I relish the day, really I do.

JHoward   ·  November 13, 2007 6:30 PM

The answer to Mockmook's question is in Art. 4, section 2 of the Constitution: "The Citizens of each State shall be entitled to all Privileges and Immunities of Citizens in the several States."

What this means in practice is that a state constitution, or legislature, may provide *more* rights than the federal equivalent, but they may not provide *fewer.*

Gustave   ·  November 13, 2007 8:28 PM

I became ordained via the Internet at United Christian Ministries. I've had the pleasure of marrying two friends of mine, sisters, although not to each other. Each also have had children since the ceremony. Should this sort of crap make them worry that their children will be rendered bastards by our elected officials?

physics geek   ·  November 13, 2007 10:22 PM

Mary Catherine Roper. How many of those can there be? i think I used to practice aikido with her in Philadelphia.

Yehudit   ·  November 14, 2007 11:26 AM

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