June 18, 2003
REGULATING "MAIL ORDER" MINISTRIES
By: Susan Price-Livingston, Associate Attorney
You asked about the legal authority of “mail order” ministers (people who are ordained over the Internet or by mail) to perform marriages in Connecticut and whether there have been recent efforts to bar people holding these credentials from performing ceremonies.
Nothing in statute or case law appears to prohibit mail order ministers from performing marriages in Connecticut, and we found no legislative proposals to do so. Courts in at least three states (North Carolina, Virginia, and New York) have ruled that ministers affiliated with one such ministry, the Universal Life Church, cannot validly perform this function. However, Mississippi's Supreme Court reached the opposite conclusion.
The statute authorizes “all ordained or licensed clergymen, belonging to this state or any other state, so long as they continue in the work of the ministry” to perform marriage ceremonies. It states that “all marriages solemnized according to the forms and usages of any religious denomination in this state, including marriages witnessed by a duly constituted Spiritual Assembly of the Baha'is, are valid.” It declares void marriages attempted to be celebrated by people other than clergymen or the judicial authorities specified in the statute (CGS § 46b-22).
There is very little case law interpreting this provision in Connecticut. In general, Connecticut courts give legal recognition to marriages performed by clergy regardless of their origin or religion. If the cleric is authorized to perform the ceremony under the tenets of the religious body to which he belongs, he is entitled to solemnize marriages in Connecticut (Hassan v. Hassan, 2001 WL. 1329840 (Conn. Super)). Other states have similar standards.
Connecticut's public policy presumes that marriages are valid. Its courts will not set aside legally imperfect marriages if the parties: (1) participated in a religious rite with the good faith intention of entering into a valid legal marriage, and (2) shared and manifested a good faith belief that they were, in fact, legally married (State v. Nosik, 245 Conn. 196, 202 (1998)).
Our search of the legislature's automated bill, amendment, and committee hearing transcript databases found no proposal in the last 15 years to further define the credentials members of the clergy must possess to be authorized to perform marriage ceremonies. And, as far as we can tell, no Connecticut court has ever annulled or declared void a marriage based on the clergyman's qualifications.
UNIVERSAL LIFE CHURCH
The Universal Life Church (ULC) is a well-known example of a mail order ministry. Its Internet website offers free, downloadable, and personalized ordination credentials to anyone within three minutes. The credential indicates that the holder is a ULC minister and is entitled to perform all ministerial services, such as baptisms, marriages, and funerals and to conduct church meetings.
The ULC does not require its ministers to have any religious training or a congregation. Its only requirement is that they “promote the freedom of religion and do that which is right and it is up to the individual to determine what is right, as long as it does not infringe on the rights of others and is within the law.” The IRS views mail order ministries as part of the illegal tax protester movement, as many ULC ministers also charter themselves as churches in order to avoid paying federal taxes (See generally, “I Know It When I See It”: Mail-Order Ministry Tax Fraud and the Problem of a Constitutionally Acceptable Definition of Religion, 25 Am. Crim. L. Rev. 113 (1987)).
Validity of Marriages Performed by ULC Ministers
During the 1970's and 1980's, courts in North Carolina, Virginia, and New York voided marriages performed by ULC ministers. Basically, they concluded that the church's procedures do not responsibly select qualified applicants for ordination and do not require them to lead a congregation. Mississippi's Supreme Court, on the other hand, upheld a marriage, finding that the ULC minister was a “spiritual leader” of a “religious body” under Mississippi's marriage laws. In all but one of these cases, the court resolved the question as it arose in a marital dispute, taking into account its particular context and the reasonable expectations of the parties to the marriage.