Trahison des clerks?

The area of Pennsylvania where I live has a Quaker history which goes back at least three centuries. One of the legacies of that tradition is the “self-uniting” marriage license — for those who decide to get married with witnesses, but without an officiant.

Pennsylvania also has what may be called a complex, not to say medieval system of local government — in which one county can have a different set of marriage licensing rules than the county next door.

What happens when these two traditions collide — and you add Internet “ordination”? Well, chaos, apparently.

At the Philadelphia Inquirer they turned to food columnist Dianna Marder to write a story about a spat among the state county clerks over who gets licensed to officiate at weddings. Given the apparent growing number of couples picking non-traditional officiants, this is a very timely story. But the article muddles the political, religious and personal conundrums raised by this changing culture around marriage so much that readers are going to be left as confused as they were when they began to read.

The reporter starts with an anecdote about a couple who used a friend (licensed online) as an officiant — and now finds that their marriage may not be legal in the county where they live. Why not?

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.)

Oddly, no clerks are quoted contending that “marriage is being sullied.” Where is Marder getting this information? What does it mean for the law to be read “without bias”? If “bias” wasn’t often in the eye of the beholder, we wouldn’t have so many lawsuits. And what does Marder mean when she says “this issue doesn’t exist in New Jersey”? What issue?

The fact that this story is so confusing isn’t totally Marder’s fault by any means. As she details, county clerks in various local jurisdictions are taking starkly different approaches to marriage-license requirements. This has resulted in a lot of lawsuits–in which the ACLU has apparently prevailed. But it’s not exactly clear from the article either what their position was (aside from a First Amendment defense challenging the more restrictive licensing laws) or what happens next. Will the clerks end up settling their scores in a swordfight at the Renaissance Faire? Possibly.

On a wider stage, church-state issues around marriage are undoubtedly being hashed out in other juridictions. Who is allowed to officiate at weddings? Who certifies that the wedding is legal? How does the state accomodate traditions that challenge their requirements, like couples whose faith bars photographs? How much can the state require before a couple’s religious liberty is breached?

It’s not unexpected that local county clerks are slugging it out — this is Pennsylvania, where government hasn’t changed much since the 18nth century. Yet Marder’s focus on the political implications, without illuminating the religious ones, means another opportunity lost to help readers see the broader implications not solely for the law, but for individual conscience, faith communities and marriage itself.

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  • Jerry

    I’m going to use this occasion to complain about the videos here. Very often I read the blog at work and so don’t click on them to avoid calling attention to what I’m doing during my coffee breaks from the other “prairie dogs” in the the cube farm in which I work.

    But today I was home so clicked on the link for this story thinking it was a video directly relating to the story rather than someone’s home movie about getting married. Then I went back to a couple of recent ones to see if my issue was with this video or with the videos in general and found I have a more general complaint. The contents of the videos are at least usually if not always without explanation.

    So please put a few words in the post about what the video contains so I can decide ahead of time whether to wait until I get home to play the video before commenting on the story or perhaps decide that the video is not central to the story so I can pass by it.

    Other than that, I found the story interesting and the analysis cogent:-)

    • E.E. Evans

      Good thing I didn’t post the “I love Lucy” episode about a marriage license! Seriously, Jerry, that’s an excellent idea. I will try to remmeber to do that, and if I forget, please remind. I would defend this as an illustration, but possibly it was not the most direct example. And we have certain restrictions, due to wishing to not plagiarize or get into hot water about copyrights.

  • tmatt

    He’s just mad about Charlie the Unicorn.

  • Jerry

    I do think it was a good example and the other two I looked at were also good matches as well, just the labeling thing bugged me.

    You inspired me to enjoy watching the episode on Youtube. In this era where gays want to get married and straight people don’t in increasing numbers, that episode was almost a cultural exhibit of a bygone era. Add to that the recently released statistics that more single women are giving birth and that sense of having watched an artifact of an ancient culture is even stronger.

  • MattK

    I think the question about New Jersey is very interesting. What issues do exist in New Jersey? Does this issue, whatever it is, not exist because of the conservative tendencies of the Mafia? Does it not exist in New Jersey because New Jersey doesn’t exist, in a media sense? It really is fascinating.

  • FW Ken

    We have “common law marriage” in Texas, which derives from the frontier days. Basically, a couple told the community they were married, then made it legal when a magestrate or clergy came around, or they went to the county seat. Is this a common arrangement outside of the Great State?

    Although it’s obselete, I know a lot of common-law couples through my work. It’s a messy arrangement when the split-up comes: IIRC, Emmitt Smith the football player had a bunch of trouble over what was either a common-law marriage or a shack-up, depending on who was telling the story.

  • Mollie


    My dreams are haunted by Charlie the Unicorn.

  • FW Ken

    You know, there are Charlie sequels for your viewing pleasure.