New Jersey recognizes secular wedding celebrants under state law. Is Pennsylvania next?

By: - May 10, 2019 7:07 am

About 15 years ago, Lois Heckman was listening to NPR when she heard a story about a celebrant officiating a commitment ceremony between two men.

She wasn’t familiar with what a celebrant did, but was struck by the job — its mixing of cultural and spiritual traditions, combined with performance and writing.

“I want to do this!” she excitedly recalled thinking, during a Thursday phone call with the Capital-Star. “This is for me!”

Heckman enrolled at the Celebrant Foundation & Institute in Montclair, New Jersey, where she took courses for half a year to earn a certificate. She learned about the meaning of ceremony and its importance in the trajectory of a person’s life, she said.

But that training didn’t automatically make her eligible to perform weddings in Pennsylvania, where she lives.

Commonwealth statute regarding who can officiate a wedding — and legally sign a marriage certificate — is narrow and at the same time confusing.

According to state law, a couple may be married by a judge, a mayor, or a “minister, priest, or rabbi of any regularly established church or congregation.”

As the Capital-Star previously reported, the phrase “regularly established” has led to dueling court rulings on whether ministers ordained online through the Universal Life Church and other non-traditional religious organizations can actually preside over weddings.

As the number of people who don’t consider themselves religious continues to grow, Pennsylvania’s law is growing more and more “antiquated,” Rep. Maureen Madden, D-Monroe, said. That’s why she’s sponsoring legislation to add “civil celebrants” to the officiant list.

Madden’s legislation is modeled off a 2014 New Jersey law that allows a person to register as a civil celebrant with the state if they pay a fee and take courses from a “non-denominational or educational charitable organization” for at least six months.

The bill would “give Pennsylvanians a different option,” Madden said, while bringing in additional revenue for the state.

Weddings are also a big business, Madden noted. In Pennsylvania, a typical ceremony and reception costs $30,000, according to the research company The Wedding Report, Inc.

Today, Heckman is a professional wedding officiant, presiding over ceremonies at venues in the Lehigh Valley, Northeast Pennsylvania, and parts of New Jersey. She also runs her own ceremony site, Harmony Gardens, in the Poconos.

She works with couples who identify as atheist, agnostic, and humanist, as well as people from different faith traditions who want to honor both backgrounds.

In order to sign marriage licenses, Heckman has had to find a work-around. She maintains her own congregation (mostly friends, she says) and calls herself a “non-denominational minister.”

While she may have started the meetings to fulfill the requirement, Heckman says the group has evolved into something bigger. She’s now a quasi spiritual leader for people in her community who don’t belong to a church, presiding over “baby welcomings,” weddings, and funerals.

There’s no state-sanctioned license for wedding officiants, leaving the decision making in the hands of county prothonotaries.

Heckman said she was told by the prothonotary in Monroe County, where she lives, “We are not the marriage police.”

“‘I am going to accept wedding return licenses from anybody,'” she recalls being told. “Most clerks are doing that, because there’s no way to judge. The statute in Pennsylvania is not well written.”

Like the New Jersey law, Madden’s bill would require at least six months of education from a “nondenominational or educational charitable organization” registered with the state. Heckman isn’t aware of a group beyond the Celebrant Foundation & Institute in New Jersey that offers such training.

Madden’s legislation would also add imams to the state’s list of acceptable celebrants. The bill is co-sponsored by Rep. Movita Johnson-Harrell, the General Assembly’s first female Muslim lawmaker.

“I think there’s no better way to spotlight our being inclusive and making sure that we’re representing everyone,” Madden said, adding that she’s not aware of any weddings officiated by imams being questioned.

In the GOP-dominated General Assembly, Madden’s bill faces an uphill battle to becoming law. She anticipates hearing objections from lawmakers who believe weddings should be religious, not secular, ceremonies.

Madden said she’s prepared to make her argument so non-religious Pennsylvanians can have more options.

She noted that she was married by a pastor she’s known since she was three years old, and who presided over the funerals of her father and sister.

Madden said she feels fortunate to have that connection.

“Not everyone has that luxury.”

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Sarah Anne Hughes
Sarah Anne Hughes

Associate Editor Sarah Anne Hughes covers the governor and Pennsylvania's agencies. Before joining the Capital-Star, she was the state capitol reporter for Billy Penn and The Incline, and a 2018 corps member for Report for America. She was previously managing editor of Washington City Paper, editor-in-chief of DCist, and a national blogger for The Washington Post.