More engaged couples are finding a unique feature to Pennsylvania’s marriage law: Ours is one of the few states where couples can marry without an officiant. Just like the now-famous Fishtown couple did before they took their iconic deli photos.
“We now pronounce you…” Nope, not necessary. Lovebirds can apply for self-uniting licenses, also commonly referred to as Quaker marriage licenses, signed only by the couple and two witnesses of their choosing. No judge or officiant required. And people are interested.
According to Philadelphia’s Marriage License Office, between 2009 (the earliest date available) and 2016, self-uniting marriage applications have gone up 166 percent, with 956 licenses issued in 2016.
Guy Sabelli, head of the Marriage License Office in the Register of Wills, said the number of total applications for both marriage license types has generally been in the neighborhood of 9,000 to 10,000 per year for the last decade, with the legalization of same-sex marriage giving it a more recent bump since 2014. Fun fact: Sabelli said that 95 percent of couples who file marriage applications in Philly go through with their ceremonies.
Here’s a guide to getting a Quaker wedding license in Philly.
How did self-uniting licenses become a thing?
The practice comes from one of the oldest statutes in the Commonwealth. Quakers believe that marriage should be between the couple and God directly; a clergyman’s blessing in the middle then becomes something like an unnecessary interference. In the mid-17th century, during the earliest days of Quakerism, when worshippers insisted their marriage bonds would go priest-less, English society viewed those weddings as invalid. Quakers were branded as adulterers.
“It also by default led to children of these unions as being regarded as illegitimate,” Kristianna Polder, of the Université de la Sorbonne Nouvelle in Paris, told Billy Penn in an email. Polder authored a book on early Quaker weddings. “Quakers also wanted to distance themselves from other religious sects associated with free love and licentiousness.”
William Penn, as we all know, was a hella devoted Quaker. Pennsylvania has legally welcomed self-uniting marriage since 1682. Mind you: Penn was granted the colony in 1681.
Do I have to be a Quaker to get a self-uniting license?
That’s a huge no. Anyone can apply for these. For one, Quakerism isn’t the only faith that favors this process. Baha’i marriages are also officiant-free. Some Pennsylvania counties have interpreted the law differently, limiting issuance to couples applying for religious reasons alone. But in short, Philly does not restrict self-uniting licenses in this way, and there have been legal challenges to those restrictions.
Most notably, in 2007, the ACLU of PA sued the Allegheny County Register of Wills for denying a couple a self-uniting license. The ACLU argued that placing a religious test on marriage licenses violated the first amendment. A federal judge ruled in favor of the couple, and ordered the Allegheny County Register of Wills to issue their license.
So how do I get one of these licenses?
The same process for a traditional marriage license. You need to head down to City Hall, and both soon-to-be spouses should have two forms of official identification (More details here). There are additional requirements if you’ve been married before or legally changed your name prior, but that’s no different from any Pennsylvania marriage application. The only distinction is that self-uniting licenses are $10 more expensive. A traditional marriage licenses goes for $90, but a self-uniting marriage costs a hundo.
What does a Quaker wedding ceremony look like?
Any way you want, unless you actually do have religious expectations to satisfy. If you’re a practicing Quaker, you have to seek approval from the Meeting, and a “clearness committee” will be assembled to interview you and serve in an advisory capacity. The Philadelphia Yearly Meeting, the organization that represents congregations in the region, recommends that clearness committees ask couples questions ranging from family planning, to their views on marriage to financial obligations that should be taken into account. The aim is to help prepare the couple for their next chapter chapter together.
Quakers often have two marriage certificates, the official license issued by the state, and another with spaces for all their guests, in this case their community and their witnesses, to sign.
But, if you don’t have any faith-based requirements and you don’t have to arrange for an officiant, a self-uniting license can mean that you have way less to do. That Fishtown couple with the Primo’s Hoagies photos had a self-uniting ceremony in their living room. The bride told Billy Penn that the license is “the easiest way to get married in Philadelphia.”
Earlier this year, the (actual) LOVE statue made a surprise appearance at a Kensington wedding. The ceremony was on April Fool’s Day and included a nerf gun salute. Those nuptials were confirmed with a Quaker license too.
“I think it’s really special in Pennsylvania,” said Adam Teterus, who served as the wedding’s emcee. “I think it offers someone the opportunity to have more creativity.”