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Are they married? It depends . . .

The wedding went off without a hitch, but four years later, Michelle and Marc Toth have one regret: They're sorry they went to Doylestown for their marriage license.

The wedding went off without a hitch, but four years later, Michelle and Marc Toth have one regret:

They're sorry they went to Doylestown for their marriage license.

In 2004, Michelle, a project manager for a financial services company, and Marc, a draftsman, planned to marry in Philadelphia and get their license in Bucks County - a decision influenced only by the office's proximity to their home in Hatboro.

They were acting within the law, of course. Couples can buy their marriage licenses in any one of Pennsylvania's 67 counties and hold their ceremonies in any other.

So how, the Toths now wonder, is their marriage considered legal in Montgomery County, but possibly null and void in Bucks?

The short answer is that the people responsible for issuing marriage licenses - the 67 elected clerks of Orphans Court - are at odds with one another. And the growing ranks of couples using a nontraditional officiant or no officiant at all are getting caught in the conflict.

On one side are clerks, such as those in Bucks and Delaware counties, who want the state marriage-license law tightened. They say the institution of marriage is being sullied, if not undermined, by nontraditional ministers and those who they believe are irreligious, liberal couples seeking to stretch the law.

On the other side are clerks, including those in Philadelphia, Chester, and Montgomery counties, who say the law is clear as long as it is read without bias. Their position has the backing of the American Civil Liberties Union. (This issue does not exist in New Jersey.)

Once, getting the license was not among the wedding minutiae that might drive a sane person to "go bridal." But now the process has become complicated and, some would say, needlessly politicized.

As a result, for every successful I do, some frustrated couples are hearing, Oh no you don't.

Pennsylvania issues two types of marriage licenses.

One is for couples whose ceremonies will be led by an officiant - whether that person is a judge or a clergy member. A ceremony in City Hall and a Mass at the Cathedral Basilica of SS. Peter and Paul both fall under this category.

The other type of license - called self-uniting - is for couples who elect to declare their vows in the presence of witnesses, but without an officiant. Members of the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) are the most frequent self-uniters in the state and, as a result, the license, also used in Baha'i and Mennonite communities, has come to be known colloquially as the Quaker license.

But in recent years, weddings have shifted toward a personalized approach. More couples, like the Toths, have wanted to write and conduct their own ceremonies or have someone close to them do the honors.

That troubled David Cleaver, the lawyer who represents the Association of Clerks, on two fronts.

He envisioned that marriages solemnized by clergy from unknown, possibly Internet-based churches eventually might be challenged in court.

And, Cleaver said, if self-uniting ceremonies ever were challenged, that would undermine the status of legitimate Quaker marriages, too.

Long-standing marriages could be declared null and void, Cleaver warned. Children could be bastardized, and government pensions and military benefits might be put in jeopardy.

Michelle and Marc Toth, 38 and 34, were among the dozens of area residents caught in the crossfire.

"We're not religious," Michelle Toth says. "We didn't automatically have a clergy person to turn to. And we didn't want to be married by some stranger."

So they asked a friend to become licensed online through the Universal Life Church and conduct their ceremony.

Then, in 2006, Cleaver's prediction of a legal challenge was realized. In York County, a bride asked the court to nullify her marriage on the ground that the minister had been ordained through the Universal Life Church (like the Toths').

York County Judge Maria Musti Cook agreed to the bride's request, ruling in September 2007 that ministers ordained online were not authorized to conduct weddings because they did not have established congregations and church buildings.

The Cleaver-backed clerks went into high gear.

Barbara Reilly, who holds the office in Bucks County, warned engaged couples to reconsider plans to use ministers ordained online, and she urged married couples who had done so to come in for emergency remarriages.

She asked certain wedding officiants to submit sworn affidavits of their legitimacy and demanded that self-uniting couples provide written proof of membership-in-good-standing from a Quaker meeting.

The last demand especially riled Thomas Swain, spokesman for the Philadelphia Yearly Meeting of the Religious Society of Friends. Government has no place questioning people about religion, he says. Besides, self-uniting licenses are not just for Quakers.

"Reilly has confused the issue for Friends and created barriers to marriage for them," Swain said.

Swain steered his daughter from applying for her marriage license in Delaware or Bucks. She and her fiance were graduates of the Westtown Quaker School, and although they would need a self-uniting license, they did not plan to marry under the supervision of a Quaker meeting.

To the ACLU, Cleaver's position clashed with the First Amendment. The organization brought lawsuits in Allegheny, Philadelphia, Bucks, and Montgomery Counties and prevailed in every instance.

In an Allegheny County case, a federal judge ruled that self-uniting licenses were not just for Quakers - and that clerks were barred from asking religious questions.

In Philadelphia, Bucks, and Montgomery Counties, judges issued rulings that conflicted with York County's. Clergy from the Universal Life Church were indeed authorized to solemnize marriages, Bucks County Court Judge C. Theodore Fritsch Jr. ruled in December 2008.

Still, Bucks and Delaware Counties are ignoring the rulings in the ACLU lawsuits.

Reilly says she is protecting engaged couples from future problems. Hugh Donaghue of Delaware County goes a step further. He requires marriage-license applicants to supply Social Security numbers (not required under federal law) because he suspects that some foreign nationals see the marriage license as a valid form of identification.

"Getting a marriage license allows you to establish identification for other purposes and change your status in the country," Donaghue says.

And, speaking of identification, Donaghue's office requires a photo ID, and he is suspicious when individuals (mostly followers of Islam) don't have them.

"They say their religious beliefs do not allow them to have their photos taken," Donaghue says.

Like Reilly, Donaghue says his interest is in protecting well-meaning individuals.

But D. Bruce Hanes, the Montgomery County Register of Wills and Clerk of Orphans Court, disagrees.

"I'm elected to carry out the law evenly," Hanes says, "not interpret the law to suit my beliefs."

Sara J. Rose, staff attorney with the ACLU in Pittsburgh, says she would like to hear from couples being treated unfairly.

And the Toths?

They were among the married couples alerted by Reilly.

"We got quite upset," Michelle Toth says. "We had friends in the same situation who took the step of going and getting remarried by a justice of the peace. But we decided not to do that. I think it's wrong to make somebody do that."

Contact the American Civil Liberties Union Philadelphia office at 215-592-1513 or at