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IN THE MATTER OF THE LAST WILL AND TESTAMENT OF COBERT C. BLACKWELL NADINE FORTENBERRY BLACKWELL v. MARY ELLA B. MAGEE

AUGUST 17, 1988

IN THE MATTER OF THE LAST WILL AND TESTAMENT OF COBERT C. BLACKWELL NADINE FORTENBERRY BLACKWELL
v.
MARY ELLA B. MAGEE, EXECUTRIX, ET AL.



EN BANC

ROBERTSON, JUSTICE, FOR THE COURT:

I.

At issue this day is whether a minister of the California-based - and not uncontroversial - Universal Life Church (ULC) may in this state solemnize the rites of matrimony so that the persons participating in those rites are legally married. The case turns on whether the Universal Life minister is a" spiritual leader "of a" religious body "within the meaning of our statute law. We hold that the ULC minister was legally empowered and that the purported marriage at issue here was validly effected. The Chancery Court's decision to the contrary is reversed.

 II.

 In 1984, Cobert C. Blackwell was a 58-year-old widower living in Walthall County, Mississippi. Blackwell and Nadine B. Fortenberry became enamored of one another and on November 8, 1984, the two obtained a marriage license in Walthall County.

 The next day, a Friday, our couple set sail for Jackson (of all places) in search of legal blessing for their bliss. They checked into the Holiday Inn Southwest at around 4:00 or 4:30. Blackwell called a Hinds County Justice Court Judge, Jack Bass, and talked to the Judge's wife. Apparently Blackwell requested that the judge come to the motel room and marry them there but was told the judge would only marry people at his office.

 Mrs. Bass referred the two to Claude Clark, suggesting that Clark was authorized to perform the marriage. They then contacted Clark who agreed to perform the marriage. On the following morning, Saturday, November 10, 1984, Clark performed the marriage ceremony and signed the marriage license. Shortly thereafter, the newlyweds returned to Walthall County and began living together and holding themselves out as man and wife.

 As fate would have it, on February 7, 1985, Cobert Blackwell died. Blackwell left a will which he had executed on July 28, 1980, which devised his real property to his first wife, Margaret (who had predeceased him), for life, remainder to his brothers and sisters in equal parts. *fn1

 In due course, the will was offered for probate and on February 14, 1985, Mary Ella B. Magee, Blackwell's sister, was appointed executrix and letters testamentary issued. Thereafter, on March 4, 1985, Nadine, the new Mrs. Blackwell, renounced the will, requested a widow's allowance and her share of the estate under the statute of descent and distribution.

 Blackwell's brothers and sisters promptly challenged Nadine's rights, claiming that she and Blackwell were not lawfully married because Claude Clark was not a person qualified under state law to perform marriages. Specifically, we are told that the Universal Life Church is not a" religious body "and that Clark is not a" spiritual leader "within the meaning and contemplation of the statute. Miss. Code Ann. 93-1-17 (1972).

 After a hearing, and the submission of briefs of counsel, the Chancery Court on September 15, 1986, ruled that

 Claude Clark was not a minister fitting within the requirements of Miss. Code Ann. 93-1-17 (1972)." He is not a minister of the gospel as contemplated by the statute, nor is he a spiritual leader of a religious body. Therefore, the couple was not married and Nadine Blackwell is not his widow. "Her petitions were dismissed finally under Rule 54(b), Miss.R.Civ.P., and this appeal has followed.

 III.

 Whatever its historical, cultural or religious origins, marriage is a function of the positive enabling laws of the state. Whether a man and woman be married turns upon their compliance with state imposed prerequisites and forms. Pickens v. Pickens, 490 So.2d 872, 875 (Miss. 1986). Where an" i "has been left undotted or a" t "uncrossed, the parties are simply not ...


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