Assembly says yes to judges, nuptials

Bill would let officials perform ceremonies

April 03, 2002|By Sarah Koenig | Sarah Koenig,SUN STAFF

For the first time, Maryland judges may soon be able not only to declare a couple divorced, but to marry them as well.

The General Assembly gave final approval yesterday to a bill authorizing judges to unite people in matrimony. Under current state law, only a religious official, Circuit Court clerk or deputy clerk can perform weddings.

That has meant that people who want a romantic civil ceremony often dress up in flouncy wedding finery only to unceremoniously wait their turn outside a court clerk's office.

Although the clerks often make a fuss, the atmosphere can nevertheless leave even the most love-blinded couple a bit disappointed. In Howard County Circuit Court, for instance, the wedding waiting area is ominously close to a counter marked "Divorces."

A Jewish constituent of Sen. Jennie M. Forehand, a Montgomery County Democrat, brought the problem to her attention. The man's son was engaged to a Catholic woman. A family friend who is a judge was willing to marry them, but couldn't. That left them with only the clerk option.

"Really, you don't have many choices," said Forehand, who sponsored the bill. "I mean, the Unitarian ministers are overworked -- or so I'm told."

Maryland is one of four states, along with the Carolinas and Massachusetts, where judges cannot marry people. If Gov. Parris N. Glendening signs the bill, as expected, the new law will take effect June 1 -- in time for the month's traditional wedding spree, but too late for his own nuptials.

In January, an Anne Arundel Circuit Court clerk married the governor and his former deputy chief of staff, Jennifer E. Crawford. The next day, a friend who is a judge performed a second, symbolic ceremony. The couple consider the latter event their true wedding date.

Judges have opposed legislation authorizing them to perform weddings, complaining that it might be awkward or cramp their schedules. "I don't think judges are really excited about performing marriages because they can't get paid for it," said Forehand.

Baltimore Circuit Administrative Judge Ellen M. Heller said she would be content to leave the marriage duties to clerks, ministers and rabbis. But, she added, uniting a couple is an honor that might provide a nice break.

"It would be an opportunity to participate in something joyous and happy without the tension and sorrow and tragedy that often comes before us in court," she said.

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