Wedded miss: Why there’s still confusion around online-ordained ministers in Pennsylvania

(erratic behavior/Flickr)

Lori Prashker-Thomas presided over her first wedding in 2013.

Friends in Salt Lake City, Utah were having a hard time finding a rabbi willing to officiate their same-sex marriage. They asked Prashker-Thomas, who is Jewish, if she would do the honor.

Prashker-Thomas wasn’t a member of the clergy or a religious leader, so she went online and became ordained through the non-denominational Universal Life Church.

That one-time favor turned into an actual business she runs in Luzerne County, officiating weddings for a fee.

She describes herself as a non-denominational “rabbi” in good standing with American Marriage Ministries, which, like mainstream churches, is registered as a charity with the feds.

But in Pennsylvania, she’s run into questions about her qualifications.

When a couple she married got divorced, the judge was prepared to rule they weren’t legally wed in the first place. Prashker-Thomas, who is also a legal secretary, said she was able to convince the judge otherwise.

And while it hasn’t happened to her, she’s heard from other officiants who say licenses for marriages they presided over were rejected by a county registrar’s office.

“It shouldn’t depend on the county, but it does,” she said.

The issue over whether online-ordained ministers can legally preside over marriages in Pennsylvania peaked a decade ago, when dueling court rulings made the question even murkier.

In one corner, there was a York County judge who ruled a marriage invalid in 2007 because the minister — a friend of the couple — was ordained online by the Universal Life Church.

In another, there was the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania, which scored three victories for non-traditional ministers and the marriages they presided over in response to the York ruling.

In the intervening years, there haven’t been any high-profile cases, and the conversation has fallen away from the mainstream. But couples planning to get hitched in Pennsylvania are still cautioned to be wary of internet-ordained ministers by some county clerks.

MaryCatherine Roper, the ACLU-PA attorney who won online officiant cases 10 years ago, said she doesn’t think there’s “any real danger for people who get married by one.”

“The law will not be settled until we bring one of these cases in York County or else have the opportunity to appeal to the Superior Court,” she said via email.

A ‘regularly established’ quandary

For the unmarried reader, there’s two things you should know about the marriage license process in Pennsylvania:

  1. Two people who want to get married in Pennsylvania must apply in-person at a county Register of Wills’ office. Couples can apply in any county and use the license anywhere in the state.
  2. After the ceremony is done, the officiant is responsible for filing the signed license with the same clerk’s office.

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.”

The phrase “regularly established” is why York County Judge Maria Musti Cook ruled a marriage invalid in 2007.

“At the very least,” she wrote, “the statute purports to require an activity that occurs on a habitual or patterned periodic basis at a place of worship (church) or a group of individuals gathered together for the same purpose (congregation).”

After the ruling, David Cleaver, solicitor for the Registers of Wills and Clerks of Orphans’ Court Association of Pennsylvania, “advised county officials in an email … to refuse to file marriage certificates for weddings officiated by ministers with Internet ordinations and no actual congregations,” according to The Morning Call of Allentown.

The idea that their marriage could be invalid scared one couple who was married by a Universal Life Church minister enough to file a lawsuit with the ACLU. A Bucks County Court of Common Pleas judge ruled in their favor and found the ULC was in fact a “regularly established church.”

“Since its inception, the Church has consistently advocated for its beliefs and in doing so has obtained a following of approximately twenty million members,” Judge C. Theodore Fritsch Jr. wrote. “In light of its continued and consistent practice as a religious organization for nearly fifty years, it would be unreasonable to find that the ULC’s establishment was or is irregular.”

Don Petrille is the Register of Wills and Clerk of Orphans’ Court in Bucks County. He also serves as legislative chair for the association that represents registrars in all 67 counties.

When someone comes to his office asking about using an online-ordained minister, “we always say either the couple or the officiant needs to get their own legal opinion somehow,” he said.

Indeed, on many county registers’ websites, there’s boilerplate language that absolves the office from having an opinion.

“Please be advised,” language on Allegheny County’s website reads. “If you choose to be married by someone other than the officiants authorized by Pennsylvania law Title 23, Section 1503, the burden of proof regarding the legality of your marriage will be on you should future issues arise regarding the validity of the marriage.”

Lancaster County’s website says something similar: “Based on court cases resulting in conflicting judgments, applicants are advised that persons who have been ordained over the Internet may or may not be persons permitted to perform marriages in Pennsylvania.  You are advised to consult an attorney concerning the legality of such marriages.”

Translation: We’re not going to tell you if your internet-ordained minister is OK.

Petrille isn’t happy that he has to be wishy-washy on the subject.

“I hate giving somebody what seems like a cop-out answer,” he said, “but that’s the only way to be legally compliant.”

Lewis King, executive director of American Marriage Ministries, said his church works with county registrars and lawmakers to clear up any confusion.

“There is no difference legally between a minister ordained through American Marriage Ministries or the Catholic Church,” he said. “The reality is that county clerks sort of do what they want most of the time.”

Back in 2009, at least one county registrar floated the idea of a legislative fix to the marriage license problem. If “regularly established” was defined in statute, it could possibly clear up the confusion.

Petrille backs that idea 100 percent.

“I do think that it would be great if the legislature would clarify one way or the other,” he said. “It would give greater certainty to the couples seeking to be wed.”

But the ACLU-PA’s Roper says that’s not necessary. What is needed, she said, is another case in York County or an opportunity to appeal a case to a statewide appellate court.

“There is no need for the Legislature to fix this. The statute is clear,” she said. “The York County judge deliberately misread it. A court screwed this up and a court needs to fix it.”

Updated, 4:40 p.m.

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.

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