Marriages Performed by Internet Ministers May Be Void

September 15, 2013
Louis Sternberg


Who can perform a marriage in New York?  Can an internet minister perform a marriage?

New York Domestic Relations Law § 11 addresses the matter of “By whom a marriage must be solemnized.”

The statute provides as follows:

  1. A clergyman or minister of any religion, or by the  senior  leader,  or  any  of the other leaders, of The Society for Ethical Culture in the  city of New  York,  having  its  principal  office  in  the  borough  of  Manhattan, or by the leader of The Brooklyn Society for Ethical Culture,  having  its  principal  office in the borough of Brooklyn of the city of  New York, or of the Westchester Ethical Society,  having  its  principal  office  in Westchester county, or of the Ethical Culture Society of Long  Island, having  its  principal  office  in  Nassau  county,  or  of  the  Riverdale-Yonkers  Ethical  Society having its principal office in Bronx  county, or by the leader of any other Ethical Culture Society affiliated  with the American Ethical Union; provided that no clergyman or  minister  as  defined in section two of the religious corporations law, or Society  for Ethical Culture leader shall be required to solemnize  any  marriage  when acting in his or her capacity under this subdivision.

    1. 1-a. A refusal by a clergyman or minister as defined in section two of the religious corporations law, or Society for Ethical Culture leader to   solemnize  any  marriage under this subdivision shall not create a civil  claim or cause of action or result in  any  state  or  local  government  action  to  penalize,  withhold  benefits  or  discriminate against such  clergyman or minister.

  2. A mayor of a village, a county executive of a county, or  a  mayor,  recorder,  city  magistrate,  police  justice  or police magistrate of a  city, a former mayor or the city clerk of a city of the first  class  of  over  one  million inhabitants or any of his or her deputies or not more  than four regular clerks, designated by him or her for such  purpose  as  provided  in  section  eleven-a  of  this chapter, except that in cities  which contain more than one hundred thousand and less than  one  million  inhabitants,  a  marriage  shall  be  solemnized by the mayor, or police  justice, and by no other officer of such city,  except  as  provided  in  subdivisions one and three of this section.

  3. A  judge  of  the  federal circuit court of appeals for the second circuit, a judge of a federal district court for the northern, southern,  eastern or western district of New York, a judge of  the  United  States  court  of  international  trade,  a  federal  administrative  law  judge  presiding in this state, a justice or judge of a court  of  the  unified  court  system,  a  housing  judge  of the civil court of the city of New  York, a retired justice or judge  of  the  unified  court  system  or  a  retired  housing  judge  of  the  civil  court  of  the city of New York  certified pursuant to paragraph (k) of subdivision two  of  section  two  hundred twelve of the judiciary law, the clerk of the appellate division  of  the  supreme court in each judicial department, a retired city clerk  who served for more than ten years in such capacity in a city  having  a  population  of  one million or more or a county clerk of a county wholly  within cities having a population of one million or more; or,

  4. A written contract of marriage signed by both parties and at  least  two  witnesses,  all of whom shall subscribe the same within this state,  stating the place of residence of each of the parties and witnesses  and  the  date  and  place  of marriage, and acknowledged before a judge of a  court of record of this state by the parties and witnesses in the manner  required for the acknowledgment  of  a  conveyance  of  real  estate  to  entitle the same to be recorded.

  5. Notwithstanding  any other provision of this article, where either or both of the parties is under the age of  eighteen  years  a  marriage  shall  be solemnized only by those authorized in subdivision one of this section or by (1) the mayor of a city or village, or county executive of a county, or by (2) a judge of the federal circuit court of appeals  for  the  second  circuit,  a  judge  of  a  federal  district  court for the  northern, southern, eastern or western district of New York, a judge  of  the  United States court of international trade, or a justice or a judge of a court of the unified court system, or by (3) a housing judge of the  civil  court  of  the  city of New York, or by (4) a former mayor or the  clerk of a city of the first class of over one  million  inhabitants  or any of his or her deputies designated by him or her for such purposes as provided in section eleven-a of this chapter.

  6. Notwithstanding  any  other  provisions  of  this  article  to the  contrary no marriage shall be solemnized by a public  officer pecified  in  this section, other than a judge of a federal district court for the northern, southern, eastern or western district of New York, a judge  of  the United States court of international trade, a federal administrative  law  judge  presiding  in  this state, a judge or justice of the unified  court system of this State, a housing judge of the civil  court  of  the  city  of  New  York,  or a retired judge or justice of the unified court  system or a retired housing judge of the civil court certified  pursuant  to paragraph (k) of subdivision two of section two hundred twelve of the  judiciary  law,  outside the territorial jurisdiction in which he or she  was elected or appointed. Such a public officer, however, elected or appointed within the city of New York may solemnize a marriage anywhere within such city.

  7. The term “clergyman” or “minister” when used in this article, shall include those defined in section two of the religious corporations law. The word “magistrate,” when so used, includes any person referred to in the second or third subdivision.


Many people have heard about online ministries that claim to allow applicants to become an ordained minister on the internet.  Often these internet programs require nothing more than paying a minimal fee.

The answer to the question as to whether such a minister is authorized to perform is unclear.  The issue is whether the ordaining “church” is within the meaning of the statute.

Religious Corporations Law § 2 provides some guidance:

The terms “clergy member” and “minister” include “a person having authority . . . from the church or synagogue to preside over and direct the spiritual affairs of the church or synagogue.

An “incorporated church” is a religious corporation created to enable its members to meet for divine worship or other religious observances.

“unincorporated church” as a “congregation, society, or other assemblage of persons who are accustomed to statedly meet for divine worship or other religious observances, without having been incorporated for that purpose.”


One New York State appellate court held that a minister from a particular non-denominational organization with no actual church or form of religious observance was not authorized to perform marriages.  More recently, another appellate court ruled that the same organization may be able to ordain “ministers” who can legally officiate marriages.   At this time, the matter is undecided but with the growth of such online churches, this is an issue that will certainly be litigated in the future.

To anyone considering getting married by a minister ordained online: please realize that the result of a would-be marriage performed someone who is later determined to be ineligible to perform marriages is harsh – the marriage is void meaning that the parties are not legally married.