By Professor Joanna L. Grossman
Rabbi? Priest? Imam? Justice of the peace? These are the usual suspects with authority under state marriage laws to preside over wedding ceremonies. Should a minister ordained online with the click of a button be added to the list? Whether ministers ordained by the Universal Life Church (“ULC”), an online ministry with more than 20 million ministers, can lawfully preside over weddings is a recurring question in lawsuits.
In a recent opinion, in Oswald v. Oswald, an appellate court in New York suggested that a ULC marriage was valid. This might not seem surprising, but it departs from three other cases in New York that have held the opposite, one of which was a fellow appellate court.
On October 29, 2005, Henry and Victoria Oswald were married. A ULC minister, in Washington County, New York, performed the ceremony. Three days before the wedding, the parties signed a prenuptial agreement that was, like most such agreements, to take effect “only upon the solemnization of [the] marriage.” The agreement, again like most, purported to fix the parties’ financial obligations should the marriage end in divorce. Five years later, Henry filed for an annulment—a declaration that the marriage never validly existed, asserting that the minister who presided over their wedding did not have the authority to do so.
Marriage law imposes certain prerequisites to a valid marriage. The parties must be eligible to marry, apply for a marriage license, and a ceremony presided over by an authorized officiant who declares the marriage solemnized. New York allows marriage ceremonies to be solemnized by civil officers and religious officials. Generally religious officials are ordained by a recognized religious body and have a congregation or following. The very idea of something like the Universal Life Church is confounding to a traditional definition of clergy. ULC ordination is free and is accomplished in seconds through a click on the website.
In several cases, spouses have argued that their marriages were invalid because a ULC minister solemnized the wedding. In the Oswald case, the lower court followed the earlier case precedents and held the marriage invalid because a ULC minister solemnized it. The appellate court reversed the trial court’s ruling and made it clear that it was departing from the analysis and reasoning of the earlier case law. During the trial phase, Mr. Oswald suggested that the ULC could not qualify as a church under New York law because it professes no beliefs. The appellate court ruled that it has no power to assess a church on this basis, beyond perhaps a determination that its self-characterization is made in good faith, noting a court can do no more than “determin[e] whether the ULC adhered to its own rules and regulations.”
Despite its pronouncements that it is not the court’s role to determine the validity of a church on its lack of beliefs, the appellate court sent the Oswald case back to the lower trial court to determine whether the ULC marriage was solemnized and thus valid.
This raises the larger question whether the legislature should, when delegating authority to conduct a civil act to religious officials, have standards at all. Is it the government’s place to decide who or what qualifies as a religion, a church, or a minister?
While the New York Court of Appeals (the state’s highest court) might weigh in this issue, he real remedy, if one is to be had, should come from the legislature. The state treads on dangerous ground when it tries to pick and choose among “religions” or “religious officials” on the basis of their religiosity.
Without changing the general definition for other purposes, the legislature could expand the definition of officiants authorized to perform marriages. It might do well to follow the model of some states, which allow laypersons to become a “minister for a day” for purposes of performing a wedding ceremony. Given that civil marriage has no religious implications, there is no particular reason why the legislature should prefer clergy over other competent adults who can be trusted to follow the rules and fill out the paperwork.
This article was originally published on Justia on May 14, 2013.