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Church ministers get green light

Judge OKs rites of those ordained via Net or mail

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Ministers who receive their ordination over the Internet or by mail cannot be prohibited from performing wedding ceremonies if those ordained by fax or in person are not also banned, a judge has ruled.

U.S. District Judge Dale A. Kimball on Thursday declared the law, passed by the 2001 Legislature, unconstitutional and permanently enjoined it from ever taking effect.

J.P. Pace, a Salt Lake man and Universal Life Church minister who received his ordination through the mail, filed the lawsuit against the statute in April 2001. He argued the law violates his constitutional rights to free exercise of religion, equal protection and due process.

But Kimball ruled the statute is unconstitutional only because it targets ministers ordained through the Internet and the mail. Others ordained by fax, telephone or in person do not face criminal prosecution under the statute. The difference violates constitutional rights to equal protection rights, the judge ruled.

"If the Legislature was concerned with the casual and effortless manner in which an individual is able to become a ULC minister, there is no rational basis for the differential treatment between ministers who applied via the Internet and mail and those who applied via fax, telephone or in person," Kimball wrote.

The 25-page ruling denies claims that people have a constitutional right to perform marriage ceremonies. Also, states have "an absolute right" to regulate marriages.

State attorneys had argued that without the statute, "every person in the state of Utah would be allowed to perform marriage ceremonies."

The Universal Life Church is a nonprofit organization headquartered in Modesto, Calif. It has more than 5,600 ordained ministers in Utah.

E-MAIL: awelling@desnews.com