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Marriage bill is introduced in State House

Rep. Jeanne McNeill, D-Lehigh, is pictured during a policy discussion on the House floor.

By JOHN WHITTAKER

jwhittaker@post-journal.com

I now pronounce you man and wife — maybe?

After years of court cases and uncertainty over the legality of marriages performed by Internet-ordained officiants, legislation has been introduced in the state House of Representatives that would require the state to recognize marriages as long as they are officiated by someone authorized by the customs of the sanctioning organization.

Rep. Jeanne McNeill, D-Lehigh, has introduced the legislation. House Bill 485 was referred to the House’s Judiciary Committee this month.

“For most Pennsylvanians, their marriage is one of the most important aspects of their lives,” McNeill wrote in her legislative memorandum.

“However, some Pennsylvania couples have experienced anxiety and distress when the validity of their marriages have been thrown into question. A few years ago, a court ruling in York County declared a marriage officiated by a minister who was ordained online to be invalid. Pennsylvania law needs to be updated to make it clear that couples can have the religious official of their choice preform their marriage without having to be concerned that their union will be declared invalid in the future. No one should have to be told after years of marriage that their union is no longer respected by the state of Pennsylvania because of the religious organization that officiated their marriage.”

The Associated Press reported in March 2019 that the question of Internet-ordained ministers had led to at least three dozen couples remarrying their spouse so that their marriages were legally recognized.

“What it comes down to, frankly, is religious intolerance,” said Mary Catherine Roper, staff attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania told the AP. “Once you decide that you, the judge, are going to pass judgment on whether a religion has a right to form its ministry in a particular way, you’ve got a real problem with the First Amendment.”

A Bucks County judge allayed some fears last month with a 15-page opinion that upheld the qualifications of a Universal Life Church minister ordained through the church’s Web site. The ACLU won similar cases in Philadelphia and Montgomery counties.

The rulings conflict with a 2007 decision in York County, where a judge said Internet-ordained ministers cannot legally marry couples in the state. The ACLU hopes to get the York County decision reversed or to take it to an appeals court for a statewide ruling.

“My bill would allow any individual of a religious body that is authorized by the rules of that religion to perform a marriage to be able to do so in Pennsylvania,” McNeill wrote. “My bill reflects Maryland’s current law and is very similar to language included in other states’ marriage laws such as Hawaii, New Jersey, North Dakota and Oregon. The number of couples who choose for a variety of different reasons to use ministers ordained online has been growing quickly in the past decade. It is imperative that we, as state representatives, work to protect the sanctity of these unions and the religious freedom of our constituents.”

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