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									Marriage Performed by Internet-Ordained “Minister” Declared Invalid
A wife brought a declaratory judgment action against her husband seeking to have their marriage declared invalid because the minister of the wedding ceremony, who
was “ordained” via the Internet by the Universal Life Church, failed to meet the qualifications of persons who are authorized to solemnize marriages in Pennsylvania.
HELD: The mortgage was invalid from its inception because the minister was not a “minister, priest or rabbi of any regularly established church or congregation” as
required by §1503(a) of the Pennsylvania Domestic Relations Code. Heyer v. Hollerbush, Court of Common Pleas of York County, Pennsylvania, No. 2007-SU-2132-
Y08 (September 7, 2007).
Dorie E. Heyer and Jacob P. Hollerbush                  the New York statutory definition of “clergy-               ....
obtained a marriage license and were married            man” or “minister”, the court held that:                     (6) a minister, priest or rabbi of any
at a wedding ceremony held on August 24,                    “Universal Life Church, Inc. is not an                  regularly established church or congre-
2006. No witnesses attended the ceremony                    ecclesiastical body of denomination or                  gation.”
other than the officiant of the ceremony,                   order; indeed, it is entirely non-ecclesi-          The Court noted that the outcome of the case
Adam Charles Robert Johnston.                               astical and non-denominational. Thus,               turned on the interpretation of the phrase “of
Less than a year after the ceremony, on June                in the absence of an actual church or               any regularly established church or congrega-
12, 2007, Heyer filed a “motion for declara-                stated meeting-place for worship or any             tion”, which phrase is not defined in the Code.
tory judgment” with the Court of Common                     form of religious observance, presided              The Court concluded that, “[a]t the very least,
Pleas of York County requesting the Court to                over or directed by a person regarded               the statute purports to require an activity that
declare the marriage invalid. In the motion,                by such group as its minister, whether              occurs on a habitual or patterned periodic
Heyer contended that Johnston was not a                     or not properly ordained, which would               basic at a place of worship (church) or before
“minister, priest or rabbi of a regularly estab-            vest in such person the authority to per-           a group of individuals gathered together for
lished church or congregation” as required                  form the marriage ceremony, the per-                the same purpose (congregation).”
under §1503(a) of the Pennsylvania Domestic                 son here in question, whose in the mail             Applying this standard, the Court noted that
Relations Code, 23 Pa.C.S.A. §101 et seq.,                  card entitled ‘Credentials of Ministry’,            Mr. Johnston admitted that he has not attend-
and, therefore, was not authorized to conduct               must be deemed without authority.”                  ed any meetings at any office of the Universal
the wedding ceremony.                                   The Supreme Court of Virginia affirmed a                Life Church, that he has no congregation with
At a hearing to consider Heyer’s motion,                decision of the lower court rescinding the              which he regularly or occasionally meets,
Johnston testified that he was “ordained” via           authority of Universal Life Church ministers            and no place of worship. Thus, the Court
the Internet by the Universal Life Church,              to conduct wedding ceremonies in Virginia,              held that Mr. Johnston “does not meet the
and that he received his certification “within          holding that “[a] church that consists of all           qualifications of persons who may solemnize
five or ten minutes” by visiting the Universal          ministers, and in which all new converts can            marriages” in Pennsylvania” and, therefore,
Life Church website at www.ULC.org. He                  become instant ministers, in fact has no                the Court declared the marriage void from
testified that he is a member of the Universal          ‘minister’ within the contemplation” of the             its inception.
Life Church by virtue of his ordination, and            Virginia statute. Cramer v. Commonwealth,               Notably, the wedding ceremony in this case
that he receives a newsletter and e-mail from           214 Va. 561, 202 S.E.2d 911 (1974).                     was conducted after “common law” mar-
the Church, but that he has never attended              The Supreme Court of North Carolina                     riage was abolished in Pennsylvania. Under
any meetings at any of the offices of the               reversed a conviction for bigamy when it                23 Pa.C.S.A. §1103, “common law” mar-
Church. Johnston admitted that he does not              held that a marriage solemnized by a Roman              riages were abolished prospectively effective
have a location or congregation of members              Catholic layman who bought a $10.00 mail                January 1, 2005. The outcome of the case
for which he serves as a minister with any              order certificate giving him “credentials of            would likely have been different if the wed-
regularity. Neither Heyer or Hollerbush is a            minister” in the Universal Life Church was              ding ceremony had occurred prior to January
member of the Church.                                   not a recognizable marriage under North                 1, 2005.
Following the hearing, the Court issued a               Carolina law. State v. Lynch, 301 N.C. 479,             The case raises, but does not address, several
“declaratory judgment” declaring that the               272 S.E.2d 349 (1980).                                  interesting real estate questions. For example,
marriage was “void ab initio” (i.e. from its            In contrast to these cases, the Supreme Court           if a marriage is declared invalid ab initio
inception).                                             of Mississippi held that a Universal Life               because the officiant of the wedding cer-
In its opinion, the Court began its analysis by         Church minister was enough of a “spiritual              emony was not authorized to conduct the
noting that there is “no Pennsylvania appel-            leader” of a “religious body” under Mississippi         ceremony, how will “entireties” property
late case law specifically addressing the valid-        law and, therefore, was legally empowered to            acquired during the marriage be treated? If
ity of a marriage performed by an Internet-             conduct wedding ceremonies. Blackwell v.                one of the spouses dies after the marriage is
ordained Universal Life Church minister.”               Magee, 531 So.2d 1193 (1988).                           declared invalid, will the deceased person’s
However, the Court reviewed several deci-               After examining these cases from other juris-           interest in their jointly-held property pass to
sions of courts in other jurisdictions that have        dictions, the Court then turned to the spe-             the surviving, former spouse, or to the heirs
addressed the issue.                                    cific language of §1503(a) of the Domestic              of the deceased person? Will creditors have
In a case predating ordination via the Internet,        Relations Code which provides in pertinent              standing to attack the validity of a marriage in
the New York Court of Appeals invalidated a             part:                                                   order to attach “entireties” property? Answers
marriage ordained by a person who, for a                    “General Rule. – The following are                  to these questions may have to await future
fee, had received his “credentials” by mail                 authorized to solemnize marriages                   decisions of the Pennsylvania Courts or leg-
from the Universal Life Church. Ravenal v.                  between persons that produce a mar-                 islation from the Pennsylvania Legislature. g
Ravenal, 338 N.Y.S.2d 324 (1972). Applying                  riage license issued under this part:               By Michael Coughlin, Esq.
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