Back to News & Commentary

Married in Bucks County: Are you Really?

Will Matthews,
ACLU of Northern California
Share This Page
February 26, 2008

Jason and Jennifer O’Neill were married in Bucks County, Penn. in 2005, and for over two years they experienced all of the typical joys and challenges that invariably come during a young couple’s first years of matrimony.

But then, without warning, trouble unlike anything they could have ever anticipated arrived in their mailbox and threatened to shatter the life they were well on their way to building together.

The Bucks County Register of Wills had sent a letter informing the O’Neills that they might not really be married after all.

Say what?

They had put on a wedding. They have the pictures to prove it. They had filed their marriage license with the register of wills. They have a copy of it to prove that.

The problem? A shockingly broad and befuddling declaration by a York County judge stating that marriages are invalid if presided over by a minister who does not regularly serve a church or preach in a physical house of worship. That and a series of decisions by registers of wills across the state of Pennsylvania to issue letters to couples like the O’Neills informing them they should consider getting re-married because they might not be legally hitched. (you can see the actual letter the O’Neill’s received in the mail on page 17 of this complaint.)

The O’Neill’s 2005 marriage ceremony was officiated by Jason’s uncle, a minister of the Universal Life Church whose primary vocation is not full-time ministry. Jason and Jennifer grew up in different religious traditions and chose Jason’s uncle to perform their wedding because they didn’t want to prioritize one of those traditions over the other. As a result, said Barbara G. Reilly, the Bucks County, Penn. register of wills, the couple might want to think about getting married again.

The O’Neills decided not to do so.

They don’t believe the state has any business invalidating marriages just because it doesn’t like the kind of ministers who officiated them. And re-marrying could be construed as a tacit admission that they hadn’t ever been married in the first place – potentially jeopardizing more then two years worth of benefits they had enjoyed as a married couple, from health insurance to tax benefits.

The ACLU of Pennsylvania has filed lawsuits on behalf of the O’Neills and two other couples who were married by ministers who were not at the time regularly serving a church or preaching in a physical house of worship. The aim is to get an appellate court ruling that their marriages are in fact valid – a ruling that would invalidate the York County judicial declaration.

But until then, if you live in Pennsylvania, keep a careful eye on your mail. You just never know when the state might try to ruin your marriage.