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Family law attorneys are urging couples to steer clear of Internet-ordained ministers when seeking an officiate to perform their nuptials. Their warnings follow a recent Pennsylvania court decision in which a judge declared a marriage invalid because the couple had been married by an Internet-ordained minister. The court ruled that the officiate was unauthorized under state law to perform a wedding. Heyer v. Hollerbush, No. 2007 SU 2132 Y08 (York Co., Pa., Ct. C.P). The ruling, divorce attorneys claim, sets a dangerous precedent in encouraging other unhappy partners to seek similar paths to avoid alimony and property division. In other words, a spouse who wants an easy out from a marriage and doesn’t want to pay alimony or split property could simply argue that the wedding wasn’t valid, so neither is the marriage. “If this ruling holds, and if it spreads, anyone who was married by an online preacher . . . can get an easy way out,” said Lynn Gold-Bikin, managing partner of the family law practice of Philadelphia’s Wolf, Block, Schorr and Solis-Cohen. “Should that person be able to go into a court and say, ‘This isn’t legitimate. Oops. I don’t want the marriage anymore.’? I don’t think so,” she said. Seattle-based Universal Life Church, the largest provider of online ordination, claims to have ordained more than 20 million ministers through the mail or online since 1959. In the past three years, the group said online ordinations have increased 100%, but would not give actual numbers. Other groups offering instant ordination include the Progressive Life Church and Ordination.org. Currently, Internet-ordained ministers are legal in all 50 states, except for certain counties in Virginia, Pennsylvania and North Carolina, where the practice has faced legal challenges in the past decade. Prominent divorce attorney Raoul Felder, who has handled numerous high-profile divorces, including former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani’s second, said, “I would recommend not doing it. “From a lawyer, that’s the safest recommendation,” Felder added. “I would go through the regular county clerk. Why take any risk? Why factor in the cost of litigation?” Yet the courts are likely to tilt in favor of the spouse being left, not the one claiming an invalid marriage, said California divorce attorney James D. Scott, who also advised against using online-ordained ministers to conduct a wedding. Scott of James D. Scott Attorney at Law in San Diego noted that “the law favors marriage. If you had a ceremony, you had a marriage license and you lived together, I think the courts are going to protect the spouse who would otherwise be injured.” In 2002, a federal court struck down a Utah statute that barred the ordination of ministers online and online weddings. The court cited the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment, holding that states cannot treat Internet activities any differently than those engaged in by fax or by phone, or in person. Universal Life Church v. Utah, 2002 WL 87560 (D. Utah). That lawsuit was filed by the Universal Life Church. George Martin Freeman, president of Universal Life Church, said his organization is currently planning a lawsuit against the state of Pennsylvania, which is considering a bill that would prohibit ministers ordained online from performing marriages in Pennsylvania. “The state doesn’t have an authority to impact or make decisions as to who is or who is not a minister,” Freeman said. “They’re basically saying: You must have a brick-and-mortar church and an actual congregation. Well, I don’t know of any magistrate or judge who has ministerial training.”

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