How online minister ordination mills work (or don’t)

Stan Alcorn Feb 5, 2015
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How online minister ordination mills work (or don’t)

Stan Alcorn Feb 5, 2015
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Kate Black is getting married and wants her brother-in-law, Matthew Carrigan, to officiate. So they are perched on a small couch in a slightly cheesy Manhattan hotel, searching the Internet for a church.

“So we have Universal Life Church, getordained.org,” Black reads from the Google search results. 

They settle on the Universal Life Church Monasterya website that has ordained such celebrities as Conan O’Brien and Joan Rivers. 

There are no questions about your beliefs. The only real limitation is age. 

“Are you over 13?” asks Black. “I am,” says Carrigan. 

The entire process takes less than two minutes. 

“Welcome Matthew Charles Carrigan to the worldwide congregation of the Universal Life Church ministers!” Black reads from the laptop screen. 

“Almost everything we do is by Internet,” says George Freeman, founder of the Universal Life Church Monastery. He says more than a thousand people of all faithsatheists includedare ordained through their website each day, and hundreds also order “church supplies,” which are mailed from the Monastery’s offices in a squat office building in a Seattle warehouse district. 

This is how the nonprofit pays for what Freeman says is a $1 million or $2 million dollar operating budget: selling wallet credentials, certificates, letters of good standing and other goods. Some are souvenirs, but many are supposed to function as documentation to persuade higher legal powers of the church’s legitimacy. A “marriage laws” section of the website gives recommendations for each state. For example: “Certification of ordination may be required in the form of certificate, wallet card, or letter of good standing.”

But this is where the quick and easy process becomes more difficult. “It should be a simple process,” says Freeman. “But unfortunately the state has its requirements, and they’re all different.”

“Some of these websites, they lead people to believe they can perform weddings in all states,” says Bob Rains, an emeritus professor at Pennsylvania State University — Dickinson Law. “And that’s just not true.” 

The question of who is allowed to solemnize a marriage is primarily a matter of state law, according to Rains, and the state laws are an odd patchwork. In Alaska, an officer of the Salvation Army can do the deed, as Rains noted in a 2010 law journal article, “Marriage in the Time of Internet Ministers: I Now Pronounce You Married, But Who Am I To Do So?” While states typically have a provision that allows ministers to perform marriages, both the language of the law and its interpretation varies. Rains and the Universal Life Church Monastery direct prospective couples to speak with their county clerk, because requirements can differ not just by state, but by county. 

The bigger problem, according to Rains, isn’t what counties may require in order to grant a marriage license, but what could happen years later. “Typically, just like a divorce, this is going to come up when a marriage has hit the skids,” says Rains. When there is a disputeover property or alimony, for instanceone member of an ostensibly-married couple may call the validity of their marriage into question, and the findings may not conform to that of the county official who granted the original license. 

For this reason, Rains has two simple pieces of advice for anyone considering being married by a minister ordained online: 

“Number one: You should not take legal advice off the Internet,” he says. 

And second, if you have any doubts about whether the way you intend to get married is legal, the time to figure that out is nowbefore you say “I do.”

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