PHILADELPHIA - Today the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania filed the first three suits in a planned state-wide challenge to recent developments that endanger the status of potentially thousands of marriages in Pennsylvania.
The suits were brought on behalf of couples who were married in Pennsylvania by clergy who do not regularly preach in a church or to an established congregation.The couples seek a ruling that their marriages are valid under Pennsylvania law.
"The state has no business invalidating marriages just because it doesn't like the kind of minister who officiated," said Mary Catherine Roper, staff attorney with the ACLU of Pennsylvania. "What we want is to fix a problem that never should have existed in the first place."
This issue arose last September, when a judge in York County ruled a marriage invalid because it had been performed by a minister of the Universal Life Church who obtained his ordination over the Internet. In Heyer v. Hollerbush, the court held that the marriage of Dorie Heyer and Jacob Hollerbush never existed because the minister who conducted it did not serve a congregation or preach in a physical house of worship.
Since that decision, registers of wills in counties throughout the Commonwealth have been telling prospective couples and couples already married that marriages performed by ministers who do not serve a congregation or place of worship are not valid. Bucks County Register of Wills Barbara Reilly has even urged couples to get remarried if their officiant did not regularly serve a congregation.
"It is surprising to see public officials reading the Marriage Act in a way that calls into question the marriages of thousands of husbands and wives throughout the Commonwealth," said Wilson Brown, of Drinker Biddle & Reath LLP, lead counsel for the couples and cooperating counsel with the ACLU. "The Commonwealth really should be upholding these people's vows to one another."
The couples who have filed suit today are Ryan and Melanie Hancock of Philadelphia, Peter Goldberger and Anna Durbin of Ardmore, and Jason and Jennifer O'Neill of Conshohocken.
Ryan and Melanie Hancock were married in 2005 by a friend who is a minister of the Universal Life Church. They chose that officiant, in part, because they grew up in different religious traditions and they did not want to disrespect one tradition by favoring the other. Ryan works as a lawyer and Melanie as a jewelry maker.
"Our marriage was perfectly legal at the time it was entered into," Ryan Hancock said. "My wife and I continue to be happily married to this day. For a judge to retroactively decide, nearly three years later, that our marriage is no longer valid seems unfair and is hurtful for both of us."
Peter Goldberger and Anna Durbin were married in 1976 in Philadelphia by a Roman Catholic priest, a Jesuit who was then clerking for a judge of the United States District Court. Goldberger and Durbin wanted to have a Catholic wedding in accordance with the wishes of Durbin's family, but chose to marry in Philadelphia for the convenience of many East Coast friends and relatives instead of in her home parish in the state of Washington. They are both lawyers who reside in Ardmore and have raised three children together.
Jason and Jennifer O'Neill were married in 2005 in Bucks County by Jason's uncle, who is a Universal Life Minister. They chose Jason's uncle because they wished to have a religious ceremony, but did not want to choose between the different religious traditions of their families. They found the principles of the Universal Life Church reflected their personal beliefs.
All of the couples have been outraged by the public officials who contend that they are not properly married.
"It is personally upsetting to us and to our families to be told after more than 30 years that we may not be legally married and that our children are not the product of a valid marriage," Durbin said.
"We can't see what valid interest the State has in limiting which priests, ministers, imams or rabbis can officiate at weddings," Goldberger added.