ACLU Sues To Protect Marriages Threatened By Recent Court Decision

February 14, 2008 12:00 am

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PHILADELPHIA – The American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania filed the first three lawsuits today in a planned statewide challenge of a recent judicial declaration 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. The ruling potentially endangers thousands of marriages in Pennsylvania.

“What we want is to fix a problem that never should have existed in the first place,” said Mary Catherine Roper, staff attorney with the ACLU of Pennsylvania. “The state has no business invalidating marriages just because it doesn’t like the kind of minister who officiated them.”

The lawsuits were filed on behalf of three couples who were married in Pennsylvania by clergy who do not regularly preach in a church or to an established congregation. The couples seek judicial declarations that their marriages are valid under Pennsylvania law.

ACLU plaintiffs Ryan and Melanie Hancock were married in 2005 by a friend who is an ordained minister in the Universal Life Church. They chose that officiant, in part, because the couple grew up in different religious traditions and did not want to favor one tradition over the other. A copy of their lawsuit can be found online at:

“Our marriage was perfectly legal at the time it was entered into,” Ryan Hancock said. “My wife and I continue to be happily married to this day. For a judge to retroactively decide, nearly three years later, that our marriage is no longer valid seems unfair and is hurtful for both of us.”

The issue arose in September 2007 when York County Judge Maria Musti Cook ruled that the marriage of Dorie Heyer and Jacob Hollerbush was invalid because it had been performed by a minister of the Universal Life Church who obtained his ordination over the Internet. In Heyer v. Hollerbush, the court held that the marriage never existed because the minister who solemnized it did not serve a congregation or preach in a physical house of worship.

Since that decision, registers of wills in counties throughout the commonwealth have been telling prospective couples and couples already married that marriages performed by ministers who do not serve a congregation or place of worship are not valid. Bucks County Register of Wills Barbara Reilly has even urged couples to get remarried if their officiant did not regularly serve a congregation.

“It’s surprising to see public officials reading the Marriage Act in a way that calls into question the marriages of thousands of husbands and wives throughout the commonwealth,” said Wilson Brown, of Drinker Biddle & Reath LLP, lead counsel for the couples and cooperating counsel with the ACLU. “We hope these cases will get this straightened out. The commonwealth really should be upholding these people’s vows to one another.”

ACLU plaintiffs Peter Goldberger and Anna Durbin were married in 1976 in Philadelphia by a Roman Catholic priest, a Jesuit who was then clerking for a judge of the United States District Court. Goldberger and Durbin wanted to have a Catholic wedding in accordance with the wishes of Durbin’s family, but chose to marry in Philadelphia for the convenience of many east coast friends and relatives, instead of in her home parish in the state of Washington. They are both lawyers who reside in Ardmore and have raised three children together. A copy of their lawsuit can be found online at:

“It is personally upsetting to us and to our families to be told after more than 30 years that we may not be legally married and that our children are not the product of a valid marriage,” Durbin said. “We can’t see what valid interest the State has in limiting which priests, ministers, imams or rabbis can officiate at weddings,” Goldberger added.

The third set of ACLU plaintiffs, Jason and Jennifer O’Neill, were married in 2005 in Bucks County by Jason’s uncle, who is a Universal Life minister. They chose Jason’s uncle because they wished to have a religious ceremony, but did not want to choose between the different religious traditions of their families. They found the principles of the Universal Life Church reflected their personal beliefs. A copy of their lawsuit can be found online at:

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