Couple fighting for rights over rites

County won't let them tie knot without presider

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Mary Jo Knelly and David Huggins-Daines plan to be married next Saturday.

With no specific religious ties, they do not want an officiant -- like a preacher or judge -- to preside over their ceremony. Instead, they have chosen to have their loved ones and friends serve as the witnesses.

But according to the Allegheny County register of wills, only Quakers and members of the Baha'i faith -- which do not have any official clergy -- can do that.

So the couple yesterday filed a lawsuit against the office responsible for issuing marriage licenses in the county.

The 15-page complaint, filed by the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania, claims that the restriction on self-uniting marriage licenses violates the establishment clause of the First Amendment.

"The government is prohibited from preferring one religion over another," said Sara Rose, an ACLU attorney. "You can't say some religious faiths can have something and deny it to all other religious faiths."

Eileen Wagner, the Allegheny County register of wills, did not return a call seeking comment.

According to the lawsuit, the couple applied for the self-uniting license on Aug. 29. But they were told they would have to supply documentation that they were Quakers or members of the Baha'i faith, who believe that there is one God and that all humanity is one family.

Otherwise, a supervisor told them, the register had been directed to stop issuing self-uniting licenses.

No further explanation was ever given.

Neither Mr. Huggins-Daines, a doctoral candidate in language technology at Carnegie Mellon University, nor Ms. Knelly, the director of interactive media at WYEP-FM, identify with any one religion.

They will be married at Touchstone Center for Crafts in Farmington, in a secular ceremony similar to that of a Quaker wedding.

Mr. Huggins-Daines, 30, attended a private Quaker boarding school in Iowa as a teenager.

"I have a deep appreciation for many of the Quaker traditions, particularly their marriage ceremony, and Mary Jo shares this conviction." he said. "Therefore, given a choice, this is how we wish to solemnize our marriage."

Such a ceremony fits in with the couple's belief system, Ms. Rose said.

But Timothy E. Finnerty, solicitor for the register of wills, sent a letter to Ms. Rose on Thursday, explaining that the couple "unless they are members of a religion without officiating clergy, cannot self-unite," he wrote.

He claims that the statute does not favor any one religion but provides a way for those without clergy to follow the law.

"The register does not and would not discriminate either in favor of or against any religion," Mr. Finnerty wrote.

But Ms. Rose argues that that is exactly what's happening.

Though it used to be the norm in Pennsylvania, the state is now unique in offering self-uniting marriage licenses.

The state's first marriage law, passed in 1701, simply required that notice be given and 12 people witness the event. There was no need for anyone to preside over the ceremony.

"It was the standard in Pennsylvania for a very long time," she said.

Then in 1885, Ms. Rose said, the state began to offer two types of marriage licenses -- self-uniting or those that required officiants.

The current law, which Ms. Rose said does not reference any specific religion to get a license, was written in 1953.

"There's absolutely no discretion for individual registers to decline to issue a license," she said.

Instead, the statute explains that if a couple fills out the proper paperwork and answers the required questions, the license "shall" issue.

The ACLU has received two additional complaints from couples seeking self-uniting licenses in the last two months, Ms. Rose said.

Because a marriage license from any county in Pennsylvania is valid in every county, Ms. Knelly, 32, contacted Butler to see if they could obtain a self-uniting license there.

However, officials there said they don't issue that type of license at all, Ms. Rose said.

The ACLU has asked for a hearing on a motion for a temporary restraining order on the issue. The case has been assigned to U.S. District Judge Joy Flowers Conti, but a hearing date has not yet been set.


Paula Reed Ward can be reached at pward@post-gazette.com or 412-263-2620.


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