Thursday, June 26, 2008

See, this is why church and state are separate.

Okay, so whenever I post stories about the wedding planning, people are quick to jump in and pat me on the head and tell me they're sorry things are hard. I love the head patting. You guys are so nice. I'm good, though. No head patting needed today.

So here is the Story of The Marriage License Adventures.

Joel and I have an officiant for our wedding. She is a teacher at Joel's school, a warm, effervescent presence. She's one of those people who move through with the world with a sense of grace and humor. She was raised Italian Catholic, officially lapsed several decades ago, and began a spiritual journey that I could listen to her talk about for hours. But oh- she still has that Eucharistic way about her. We couldn't be happier to have her preside over our nuptials. We don't want anyone else.

Here's the thing. She's a spiritual leader affiliated with the Interfaith Council of New York and can legally solemnize marriages in New York state. Not so much in Pennsylvania. Unlike Massachusetts, where individuals can apply for a permit to marry two people on a given day, Pennsylvania doesn't have that option.

What about the Internet, you might ask? We don't want to ask her to get ordained on the Internet for two reasons. 1.) She's already ordained, a spiritual leader in her faith community. We respect that too much to ask her to add on a "Universal Life Church" label for the day just because our wedding isn't in New York. 2.) Pennsylvania is fighting Internet ordination left and right. Marriages are being overturned for couples who were married by a friend ordained on the Internet.

I think getting married by a friend is a lovely, lovely option, by the way. I know a lot of couples who have gone this route. It's beautiful. That said, I'm personally nervous, just for us, about the thought of having our marriage overturned. I like the idea of our marriage, you know, not being turned over. Right side up, please and thank you.

So, what to do? Pennsylvania has something called a self-uniting marriage license. It's been on the books since 1681, perfectly legal. The notion of the self-uniting marriage license comes from the Quakers, who do not have a hierarchal structure in their churches. Basically, Quakers come together to worship, sit in meditative silence until someone feels moved by the holy spirit to speak, and take turns talking and praying. No one person is considered closer to God than anyone else. It's nice. When Quakers get married, basically, the couple makes vows to each other. They unite themselves. Two witnesses have to sign their marriage license to say, "Yup, we saw them do it."

Now, even though William Penn was a Quaker and founded the state of PA (Hi, Mr. Crownover!* I wonder if you're still alive!), the self-uniting marriage license is not exclusive to Quakers. Anyone can apply for one. You just tell the clerk you want Form B instead of Form A, and voila! You're all set. Done!

In theory...

So I have been doing lots and lots of research about this. It seems that many town clerks are unaware of the law, that any couple can self-unite. I found some excellent resources provided by the Pennsylvania Freethought Society, which is an atheist organization, explaining how and why they can't do that. Under the law, the marriage license bureau can not deny us a self-uniting marriage license due to our religion or lack of proof thereof.. A federal judge recently ruled in favor of a couple, upholding the statute. The ACLU has a special 1-800 number for Pennsylvania couples being denied self-uniting marriage licenses.

Joel and I are going to PA on July 3rd to kick off Alissa and Todd's wedding weekend extravaganza. You have to get your marriage license in PA within 60 days of your wedding, in any county in the state. We want to get our marriage license first thing on the 3rd, so we can get to the rehearsal later that afternoon. I do not want to be crying or arguing Pennsylvania's marriage statutes with a Clerk of the Orphan Court who insists on a recommend from a Society of Friends. No way, Jose. So I've been calling around, trying to ensure that the necessary state government offices will be open the day before the July Fourth holiday and make sure we won't have problems.

Alissa warned about her experience getting a marriage license: "Uh, be prepared for the part where you put your hands on the Bible and swear you aren't cousins." I laughed. "What!? No! Really?"
Liss: Yes.
Me: Oh, well, we're doing the self-uniting thing, so I don't know...
Liss: Oh, no. The Bible lives right there on the desk. You walk up, fill our the form, hand over the money, and swear on the Bible that you aren't cousins.
Me: Wow. I love Pennsylvania.**

Famous. Last. Words.

I called the marriage license office in a town very close to Alissa and Todd's house to a.) make sure their offices were open during ordinary hours on July 3rd because it's the day before a big holiday and I'm a neurotic little cookie and b.) to make sure we weren't going to get any crap when we apply for a self-uniting marriage license because we're not Quakers.

It was remarkable. Every close-minded, pain in the ass thing that you can imagine happened. It was just like all the articles and informational websites and the ACLU said it might be. You have to be Quakers. No, we don't, actually- Yes, you do. You have to have a signed form from the Society of Friends. No, we really don't. I have researched this. I know what I am talking about. You need to speak to my supervisor, who actually had the nerve to say to me, "Just because one judge agreed to let that one couple do it doesn't mean it's legal for everyone."

Um, hello? Do you not know what "legal precedent" means? I got on the phone with the supervisor, then the town attorney, who- upon hearing me say that the ACLU has a 1-800 number just for couples who've been denied secular self-uniting marriage licenses- said, "It would be nice to talk to the ACLU. At least they know what their talking about." I thanked him for the implication that I didn't. He accused me of threatening him with a lawsuit. I told him he should be aware that the PA Dept of Human Services is starting an outright effort to educate state employees who are ignorant about the law, and he should expect to hear from them. He asked me who told me that. I told him it's on the Pennsylvania Freethought Society of Greater Philadelphia's website. He was clearly googling while listening, and asked me who came up with the idea of an organization for atheists. I told him Thomas Paine. He asked, "Wasn't he from New Hampshire somewhere?" Having spent the last five consecutive Flag Days shooting costumed re-enactors talking on cell phones and using Port-a-Potties at the Thomas Paine House in New Rochelle, I told him Thomas Paine was from New York but collaborated with Ben Franklin, hence the Philly connection, shortly after the Continental Congress held the Virginia convention in 1776.

It was fun. Not.

I asked him what that had to do with my upcoming marriage, and he said he was trying to help me "even if [he] didn't agree with [me.]" I told him, never mind, I called because I wanted to make sure the office of the orphan court knew the law and would issue us a self-uniting license. I clearly had my answer, and would apply in another office. He told me he had to do some research at a law library but would be on vacation until the end of July. He took my name and number.

Meanwhile, I called the main marriage license bureau in Philly and asked if they were open on July 3rd. Yes. Could my fiancee and I come in and get a self-uniting marriage license? Yes.

"You don't need anything special," she said. I told her we weren't affiliated with a Society of Friends, and she said she wasn't allowed to ask about my religion anyway. "How come they gave me such a hard time in the office of the orphan court?" I asked. "How come they don't know this in Bucks County?"

"Honey, I have no idea," she said. "You need your driver's license, though, and $90 in cash. If either of you has been married before, you need proof of divorce or the death certificate of your previous spouse." Got it. Fine. We will just drive into Center City for the marriage license before Liss and Todd's rehearsal. Whatever.

"There's one more thing," the clerk said. "He can't be your cousin!"


* Mr. Crownover was my 8th grade social studies teacher, a bigtime PA History buff.

** Actually I said, "I love Pennsyltucky," which is what this guy from college drumline called my home state, implying we were backward and hillbillies. Then again, everyone called him "Big Daddy Parmesan," so you know... That says something right there.


Carl said...

Why is it that the way you describe your little adventures makes them seem like they should be Seinfeld episodes?

Don't forget to have the Mormons do some background geneology checks to make absolutely certain you two aren't cousins.

cindy w said...

I think you need to find an email address for the PA Dept of Human Services and basically copy & paste this entry over to them. If you have the name of the "town attorney" who said you were threatening him with a lawsuit, all the better.

Alissa said...

Hey lady,

Did you check with the Norristown office? That's the closest one to our house, and it's the Montgomery County Courthouse. That's where we went. Anyway - it would be quicker than driving downtown.

Cara said...

Meh, driving to Center City the day before a holiday. One of the Septa connections is right below City Hall, if taking the train is a possibility for you. Good luck getting the license. :-)

Alissa said...

Is the place you're headed in city Hall? Cara's right - taking the train would be MUCH better. You don't want to drive into Center City *Philadelphia* on July 4th weekend. There's all kinds of crazy stuff going on down there. Such as... the old guy who dresses up like Ben Franklin is marrying the woman who dresses up like Betsy Ross. No joke. They're getting married for real, on the steps of Independence Hall, with the Philly Pops playing music and the whole world invited to stand around and watch.

The good news is that you can hop on a train right near my house, and it goes directly to center city, and stops at all 3 center city stops, including right under city hall. Takes about 35 minutes by train... an hour by car, plus parking, yada yada.

But also, consider Montgomery County Courthouse in Norristown. It's worth a phone call, I think.

Wetzel said...

Mr. Crownover died last year, the same day that I thought I saw him out of the corner of my eye here in Washington and called my mom to relay the strange "phantom Mr. Crownover." When I called, she told me he died that afternoon. Bizarre. Obviously it wasn't him that I saw.

Becky said...

What a total pain in the patoot. So sorry you've had to deal with this. That self-uniting thing is pretty cool, though.

Jillian said...

Are you kidding me? Yikes! It was easier to get a gay marriage license- oh the irony on that one.

And $90! I think ours was $30! And I swear there was something about cousins can get married if you're not first cousins.... too busy trying to finish up grad school work right now to go investigate that one!


Chunky Photojournalist Barbie said...

Update: The town attorney called me back and left a message on my voicemail. He said that "he's done significant research and there seems to be merit to [my] position." He "supposes that atheism constitutes some sort of religious belief... in a way," and "It turns out [I] am right. He practically chokes on the words "You have my best -choke- hope for a lifelong marriage."

In general, the whole experience gave me even more compassion and empathy for couples fighting for marriage equality. The most infuriating part of this, aside from blatant incompetence and ignorance of the law, was the crummy feeling stemming from the assumptions made about my religious beliefs, our relationship, etc. In short- what someone else assumes about my life, beliefs, and relationship because of the marriage license application I want.

Liss: Okay, the Frankin-Ross wedding sounds AWESOME. Not awesomer than yours, though! :) We will probably take the train in from Ft. Washington.

Carl: Um, I don't know why my life sounds like an episode of Seinfeld. Could it be that a disproportionate amount of weird stuff happens to me? Could it be that I write with the intent to make people laugh? :) Come on, you've been reading my blog for at least six years now. You know that at any given time I could have a car accident or run screaming from a lunatic gynecologist. Are you still surprised, dude?

Wetzel: Ooh, Phantom Mr. Crownover gave me chills. I miss you. If you wanted to call me and pretend you have a chicken to sell, it would be the best thing ever. RIP, Mr. C...

Alissa said...

Also, did they really tell you $90? They charged us $40 two weeks ago in Norristown.

Chunky Photojournalist Barbie said...


Alissa said...

Hm. I guess individual counties can set their own fees then. We definitely paid $40. I suppose maybe it's worth it to pay more knowing that they won't give you a hard time down there? Good luck.