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.
By 1885, Pennsylvania had clearly developed two types of marriage licenses. The first required a “minister of the gospel, justice of the peace, or alderman” to officiate. The other let a couple solemnize the marriage themselves (a self-uniting license) and register it with the county.
Little changed until the legislature amended the law in 1953. While the law still allowed for both types of licenses, a reference to religious ceremonies was added to language describing who could obtain a self-uniting license. The law remains in effect.
Since the commonwealth government is not the United States congress, I assume it has more leeway to limit freedom of religion; why it would want to do so in this context is beyond me, though. If you succeed in getting a marriage license, it seems to me, you’ve passed such requirements as the government deems fit. (Pennsylvania doesn’t even require a blood test, IIRC from hetero friends who have taken the plunge.) Who officiates, since legal marriage doesn’t require anyone to certify that you’re entering into the union mindedly or that you’re not likely to split up.
Eric seems to feel the same; I like his idea for a new denomination, too:
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?
I’ve been thinking about what makes a religion “legitimate” from a different angle over the last week or so, since a friend with whom I went to church growing up contacted me for the first time after a dozen or so years. I posted about this last week. Some consider the Worldwide Church of God a cult; others think it was a genuine Christian sect that got carried away on certain doctrinal points and was poisoned by a cabal of amoral leaders at the very top. (I’m speaking of the church up to about ten years ago; it’s now made numerous doctrinal changes that have brought it into line with mainstream evangelical Protestantism. I think. There’s something about converting to atheism that lessens your attention to theological points, so I may be overstating the case.) I think that this site does a real service in giving former members a place to read up on the inside dirt and share horror stories. The church was supposed to be the center of your life, and it’s perfectly understandable that many people who took that to heart have had real difficulties adjusting since leaving it.
I do wish, though, that the people who posted were a bit more given to recalling that they freely chose to get involved with the WCG, in countries in which freedom of religion is protected. There’s a page that has a long, long, long list of bullet points for which the ministry ought to apologize—ways the enforcement of church doctrine and culture played havoc with people’s lives. Okay, point taken. But no one was forced at gunpoint to keep attending church, or to refuse to take her children to the doctor, or to fork over twenty percent of his gross income per year to church headquarters. Ministers are responsible for the destructive untruths they peddled, but they can’t be blamed for the unusual eagerness of many members to believe them. Much of the WCG membership comprised, in my experience, people who felt like misfits and were bad at running their own lives. My parents frequently had discussions with friends who were positively relieved to outsource their decision-making about jobs and marriage and childrearing to their pastors and church elders, even when the advice they were given flouted all logic and sense. With the exception of people who were brought up in the church and had been prevented by devout parents from ever knowing any other way of living, I find it difficult to view church teaching as something that was done to sympathetic, pure-of-heart dupes. Being weak-minded may help explain why you’re acting like a ninny, but it doesn’t excuse it.
The couple in the York County case, similarly, was presumably aware of the difference between an experienced pastor of an established religion and a friend who obtained an ad hoc ordination as a clergyman. It’s ridiculous for them to argue now that they should be legally able to pretend it never happened just because they discovered too late that they weren’t compatible. I hope Eric’s right and that the current decision is “eminently reversible.”
Added on 15 November: Blogger Ironwolf, who was brought up in the same church as I was, has posted about yet another lectern-thumper who wants us to know we’re all doomed. The specifics of how we’re going to fry aren’t all that interesting–social collapse, big-scary-nightmare empires established by the most populous Asian countries, nuclear holocaust–no one seems to bring much imagination to these things. (Just once, can’t one of these doomsayers jazz things up by predicting that the Satan will launch the End Times from, like, a village in Surinam?) I point it out only to give an indication of the sort of talk that was common coin at church services and among my parents and their friends when I was growing up.