When Mickey and Tori Nuccio got engaged, they knew they wanted a close friend to officiate their wedding. Having Mickey’s college roommate preside seemed like a good fit for their traditional but nonreligious ceremony in Phoenixville.
But Mickey remembered learning in law school about a York County court ruling from more than a decade ago that put weddings officiated by someone ordained online in a legal gray area.
Last year, about half of U.S. weddings were officiated by a friend or family member, according to an annual study by wedding website the Knot. That’s up from 40% in 2015 and 29% in 2009.
“When you trust a friend, you can kind of know that they’re going to take care of you,” said Julia Gwiazdowski, 27, of Philadelphia, who was married to her wife in 2017 by a friend who got ordained online. “We were able to make the vows more reflective of what we felt was important to a marriage.”
The Nuccios, of Phoenixville, came up with a commonly used solution: They had their friend preside over their August 2016 marriage, but they got a self-uniting marriage license, instead. The unique Pennsylvania license, which is a Quaker tradition, allows people to marry themselves without an officiant, just witnesses. That means a couple can have someone emcee the ceremony as a symbolic but not legal officiant. Colorado and Washington, D.C., have similar types of marriage licenses.
Marriage laws vary by state, but online ordination is generally legal in most of the country. Virginia and Tennessee don’t generally recognize ministers ordained by the Universal Life Church, which runs one of the major ordination websites. During the spring, the governor of Tennessee signed a law banning such weddings. A federal judge blocked the law, allowing marriages to go forward until a lawsuit filed by some Tennessee ministers ordained online goes to trial.
So are there any legal issues with having someone who was ordained online officiate your wedding in Pennsylvania? And when might you choose a self-uniting license?
The source of the confusion over Pennsylvania’s rules for marriage started in the mid-2000s when, in separate cases, county clerks questioned self-uniting licenses and the use of officiants ordained online. Here are the answers you need to plan your wedding.
In 2007, a York judge ruled that, under Pennsylvania law, a minister officiating a marriage must regularly practice with a church or congregation, effectively saying that people can’t use officiants who get ordained online only to conduct a wedding ceremony. Couples in Philadelphia, Montgomery, and Bucks Counties who had been married by officiants without congregations then asked the courts to determine whether their marriages were valid, according to the ACLU; judges ruled that they were.
“You yourself could go online today, sign up for $39, and be ordained — and according to our attorney, that’s valid,” said Guy Sabelli, first deputy of Philadelphia Orphans’ Court, who oversees the city’s marriage license and marriage records departments.
That leaves Pennsylvania county courts at odds with each other, but the issue was never elevated to a state appeals court. It could be decided more definitively in the future if anyone sued over the validity of a marriage or challenged the York County ruling.
On Monday, State Sen. Lawrence Farnese (D., Philadelphia) introduced a bill in Harrisburg that would add “civil celebrants” to the list of people qualified to marry others to aid couples who don’t want religious ceremonies, but under the proposal, the civil celebrants would be required to complete at least 120 hours of study to qualify.
For now, though, having someone who was ordained online marry you is considered legal by the ACLU, courts in three counties have agreed, and no court challenge to such marriages has been made again in Pennsylvania in the 12 years since. For a definitive statewide ruling, the question would have to be taken to an appellate court, said MaryCatherine Roper, deputy legal director for the ACLU of Pennsylvania.
“We don’t think anybody is in any legal danger by using an internet-confirmed minister,” Roper said. But, she added, couples who are nervous could use a self-uniting license instead, as the Nuccios did.
Shannon McLaughlin Abel and Jayson Abel turned to a self-uniting license when they wanted Jayson’s uncle to officiate their wedding.
Delaware residents who got married in Old City in January, they were worried about the legality of an online ordination in Pennsylvania and they liked that obtaining the license — which adds $10 to the standard $90 marriage license fee in Philadelphia — was much cheaper than hiring an ordained officiant.
“It was really special for a family member to marry us,” said McLaughlin Abel, 29, and the marriage license process was easy. “I think people get a little scared that it’s not legal … [but] it’s completely legal, and it’s pretty special.”
In 2007, there was a dispute in Allegheny County over whether people had to be Quaker or Baha’i to be given a self-uniting license.
A federal judge put the question to rest with an order that the couple in question be allowed to marry regardless of their religious faith, saying that self-uniting licenses have been issued in Pennsylvania “without regard to the religious or nonreligious affiliations of the parties.”
Using a self-uniting license can give a couple flexibility for their ceremony, or lack thereof. Sabelli said they’re popular among people who are planning smaller, cheaper weddings or second marriages.
It worked for Sophia Curcio’s destination wedding. She and her husband-to-be planned to wed at the chapel in Portugal where her parents had been married, but they needed to get married legally in the U.S. first.
So they got a self-uniting marriage license and promised themselves to each other at Fatty’s Bar and Grill in Wyndmoor, the December before their 2011 wedding, with the bartender and the groom’s father as signing witnesses.
Several months later, they went to Portugal for their dream wedding day. .
“It was a great experience for us,” said Curcio, now 35 and eight years married. “[It] meant we could plan everything else the way we wanted it to be.”