Pennsylvania Judge Nullifies Weddings
by Online Ministers
nna and Casey Pickett fell in love during a college class on Transcendental literature, reveling in the nature-loving rhapsodies of Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson.
It was only natural, then, that when the couple married last July, they would stand beside a rustic lake in Pennsylvania, with the professor whose class brought them together officiating at the ceremony.
Two months later, however, the couple got a call from a county clerk in Pennsylvania, who told them their marriage might not be valid. And years from now, the clerk said, when they bought a house, applied for government benefits or had children, they might have a problem.
"It was a total shock," said Anna Ruth Pickett, 27, who works in environmental justice for the New York-based Ford Foundation.
The problem: Their professor, T. Scott McMillen, who was not a minister, got ordained online to perform the ceremony. In September, a judge in York County, Pennsylvania, ruled that ministers who do not have a "regularly established church or congregation" cannot perform marriages under state law.
The ruling, while currently limited to York County, has sent shock waves throughout Pennsylvania. Clerks and registers have called press conferences to alert the public and predicted the end of "thousands" of marriages.
If the York precedent holds in Pennsylvania's 66 other counties, as some officials think it should, it could spawn hundreds of legal and domestic disputes, experts say.
"Things have reached a point where we're approaching some chaos," said David Cleaver, the solicitor for Pennsylvania's state association of registers of wills and clerks of orphans' court.
The American Civil Liberties Union says Pennsylvania officials have trampled the boundary between church and state and is mulling legal action.
Meanwhile, 30 state lawmakers have introduced a bill in Pennsylvania's General Assembly that would exclude wedding officiants who are ordained "by mail order or via the Internet or any other electronic means."
"To me, if you want to perform marriages, you have to go to school and learn the teachings for the correct way to perform this extremely solemn ceremony," said state Rep. Katie True, a Lancaster County Republican who co-sponsored the bill.
Adams Charles Robert Johnston hadn't done any of that, according to York County Common Pleas Judge Maria Musti Cook -- the judge who issued the order -- when he married two friends in August 2006.
Johnston was ordained online "in five minutes" by the Universal Life Church, Cook's ruling states. Johnston testified that he was a member of the church by virtue of his ordination but that he had never attended any church meetings, nor did he have a congregation.
Without a church or a congregation, Cook ruled, Johnston was not a minister. At the request of the wife, Dorie Heyer, 21, the marriage was declared invalid.
After the ruling, Cleaver sent an e-mail to all county clerks and registers, telling them not to accept marriage licenses from couples married by online ministers. Five days later, he sent a second e-mail, telling them to accept the licenses. "I said to myself: Wait a minute, we're not cops. We're not entrusted to check out these licenses," he said, explaining his change of mind.
Mary Catherine Roper of the ACLU said that "lots of clergy don't have congregations but do other things, and to suggest that those are not legitimate ministers is insulting and disregarding the religious work of any number of denominations."
Texas Baptists Elect First Female President
The Baptist General Convention of Texas elected its first female president October 29. Joy Fenner, a former missionary from Garland, Texas, won on a 900-840 vote, defeating David Lowrie, a pastor of a church in Canyon, Texas.
Fenner, 70, who has served as a church secretary and executive director of the Woman's Missionary Union of Texas, won with the smallest margin of victory in the state convention's history, according to a BGCT news release.
Fenner's election follows the convention's election of its first black president, in 2005, and its first Hispanic president the previous year.
Convention spokesman Ferrell Foster said Fenner's gender could have affected the voting. "Some people believed it was time that we had a woman leader," he said in an interview from the convention in Amarillo, Texas. "Others were not ready for that step. But there were also other issues. Neither one of the candidates made her gender a primary thing in why they were allowing themselves to be nominated."
Fenner, who was first vice president of the convention before the election, pledged to emphasize increasing mission work by the 2.3 million-member convention.
Some of the more than 5,600 congregations affiliated with the BGCT are also affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention, but the state convention has distanced itself from the more conservative denomination in recent years.
R.I. Diocese Reports Double Number of Abuse Allegations
The Roman Catholic Diocese of Providence, R.I., reported a significantly higher number of allegations of clergy sexual abuse in a newly revealed legal filing than it had previously acknowledged, raising key questions about how the diocese tracks abuse.
From 1971 to 2007, 125 Rhode Island priests were accused of sexual assault or sexual misconduct and 95 were accused of sexual crimes against minors, according to a court document filed by the diocese in January.
In a nationwide study in 2004, the statewide diocese reported that allegations of sexual abuse against a minor were lodged against 56 priests between 1950 and 2002.
BishopAccountability.org, a watchdog Web site, brought the court document to light earlier this month. It was filed as part of a civil suit now before the state Supreme Court.
The recently revealed number is higher because "the reporting requirements ... are substantially different in terminology and scope," the diocese said in a statement.
The earlier study, completed by the John Jay College of Criminal Justice for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, asked for "plausible, credible allegations," the diocese said.
The court filing, requested by a judge, asked for any allegation of sexual misconduct against a priest, living or deceased, "whether such allegations were credible, or ... vague, anonymous, withdrawn, or ultimately to be found false," according to the diocese.
Studies Point to Abortion-Breast Cancer Link
BY ERICA SIMONS ©2007 Baptist Press
Ireland has the lowest rate of breast cancer out of nine selected European countries, and it also has the lowest rate of abortion.
These findings are part of a study that may provide new evidence for a connection between abortion and breast cancer. It is one of two such reports released in separate medical journals in October, which is Breast Cancer Awareness Month.
"The South East of England has more breast cancer than other parts of the British Isles. It also has the highest abortion rate," Patrick Carroll wrote in the Journal of American Physicians and Surgeons.
Carroll, a scientist who researches epidemics, mapped the trends of high rates of breast cancer with rates of abortion in nine different European countries, including Scotland, Finland, Denmark, Ireland, and England, and found the two to be correlative.
His report was published just two days after the journal Cancer Research published its findings on the connection between the existence of fetal cells in a mother's blood stream and the occurrence of breast cancer.
The fetal cell study, conducted at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle, was an attempt to explain the known effect of child bearing in reducing a woman's chances of breast cancer.
Although many are unaware of the link between a woman's reproductive history--especially a previous abortion-—and breast cancer, it is an important risk factor, says Karen Malec of the Coalition on Abortion/Breast Cancer.
There is resistance among some organizations that educate women about breast cancer to making the connection between abortion and the disease. These include the American Cancer Society and Susan G. Komen for the Cure.
Baptist Press contacted the Internet site breastcancer.org but was not granted an interview with its president, Marisa Weiss. The website describes itself as the "world's most trafficked online resource for medically reviewed breast health and breast cancer information" but makes no mention of reproductive history as a risk factor.
Most of these organizations cite a study conducted by the National Cancer Institute. "In March 2003, the National Cancer Institute's Board of Scientific Advisors and Board of Scientific Counselors unanimously agreed that epidemiological evidence does not support any association between abortion and breast cancer," according to information on the Komen website.
While most agree there is a link between the first pregnancy and reducing the risk of cancer, the independent link between abortion and the risk is disputed.
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