When he spotted the small white fountain in downtown D.C., Scott Bovarnick knew. He knew the same way he knew he would marry Lucille Convery after a shared glance years ago on a drive.
Five minutes later — after Bovarnick, 26, gave a short speech thanking a half-dozen guests, signed a piece of paper and kissed Convery twice — the two were married. Well, almost: They still had to walk back to the nearby H. Carl Moultrie Courthouse to file the paperwork.
Bride, groom, loving onlookers, vows of devotion — all there. But on a sunny Monday morning last week by the Andrew M. Mellon Memorial Fountain, there was no minister, priest, rabbi, judge or third-party officiant in sight.
Bovarnick and Convery, who live in the District, opted for what is known as a “self-uniting marriage”: a ceremony in which one member of the couple getting married acts as the officiant. In their case, it was Bovarnick, meaning he signed the light-blue piece of paper provided by D.C. Superior Court. (He has “a much better signature,” Convery explained.)
This kind of wedding is legal in a handful of states, including Colorado and Pennsylvania, and the marriages are legally recognized everywhere.
The District began allowing self-uniting marriages in 2014. Although the D.C. Marriage Bureau said it does not track the number of self-uniting marriages performed in the District, wedding planner Starlene Joyner Burns said they have risen in popularity.
“I am seeing a change in how people are getting married,” she said. “And I see people come from all over.”
Self-uniting weddings are quick, often lasting less than half an hour; cheap, costing just $45 for the marriage license application; and simple. All couples must do is show up at the courthouse with government-issued IDs.
After jotting down basic information, including their dates of birth and social security numbers, pairs step outside to sign a document — the law mandates they cannot marry themselves on courthouse premises — before returning to collect the signature of a clerk.
With that, they’re hitched. “Super easy,” Bovarnick said.
“It makes a lot of sense to me, ” said Scott Stanley, a professor at the University of Denver who studies marriage and commitment. “This is in keeping with the times, and it gives an angle to people who are less religiously inclined, which would be more people marrying today than in the past.”
A recent Gallup poll found the number of Americans belonging to a church, synagogue or mosque hit an all-time low of 50 percent in 2018.
Bovarnick and Convery, who are Jewish and Catholic, respectively, did not choose a self-uniting wedding because they wanted to avoid religion. In fact, the couple was unaware they could perform their own ceremony until a few minutes before they did so.
The two are planning to marry in Croatia later this month, but they didn’t realize that obtaining a marriage license outside the United States was complicated. On the morning they were slated to leave for Croatia, the pair headed to the courthouse intending to marry before a judge. They switched their plans when a clerk told them about self-uniting weddings.
The freewheeling nature of the ceremony appealed to the travel-loving couple.
“I love the adventure of it,” Bovarnick said.
“And the spontaneity,” Convery added. “If you haven’t noticed, we’re a little spontaneous.”
Others may have financial reasons for pursuing a self-uniting marriage.
The cost of a full-blown ceremony can be prohibitive. The national average price tag of a wedding last year clocked in at $33,931, according to the Knot 2018 Real Weddings Study. Stanley said a self-uniting ceremony could offer a flexible, affordable alternative.
Research has shown that low-income people are more likely to be “pro-marriage” than those with higher incomes, but less likely to actually wed, he said.
“You could find ways to create more of a real ceremony with lots of people in it that hardly costs anything,” Stanley said.
For Charles and Alyssa Wang, who married in a self-uniting ceremony in the District in May 2018, too many guests was the problem, not the solution. The Wangs wanted to marry as simply as possible before they moved to Lima, Peru — where they still live — for Charles’s work with the Foreign Agricultural Service. They planned to keep the ceremony small and ask a friend to officiate, obtaining a license online if necessary.
But the couple struggled to winnow their guest list, much less choose an officiant. Both worried they would offend close friends in the process. After visiting the Marriage Bureau to research their options and learning about self-uniting weddings, the pair felt they had found a way out of their dilemma.
“It was really nice to have a simple option that allowed us to focus on the commitment part of it and enjoy the moment,” said Alyssa Wang, 27.
Not everyone views the increased accessibility of marriage as a good thing. Former D.C. council member Tommy Wells, who sponsored the Marriage Officiant Amendment Act in 2013, said he has had friends ask whether legalizing self-uniting weddings might lead to people “taking marriage less seriously.”
Brad Wilcox, a professor at the University of Virginia who directs the National Marriage Project, a conservative research group that explores the health of marriage in America, echoed those fears. He warned that marriage has long been a “communal undertaking” for a reason.
“The research indicates that couples who marry with a larger wedding party tend to be happier in their marriages,” he said. “We see communal undertakings in traditions as varied as Catholicism, Hinduism and Judaism. . . . Taking vows in front of others probably makes those people take those vows more seriously.”
Thomas Hamm, a history professor at Earlham College who has written five books on American Quaker history, cautioned that some U.S. Quakers might view self-uniting weddings as a perversion of the long-standing tradition of their ceremonies, which leave out a presiding authority figure. Engaged Quakers solemnize their unions themselves. Unlike in self-uniting weddings, however, God is closely involved. Quakers believe anyone can be inspired by God, which means anyone — including brides and grooms — can act as ministers. Moreover, Quaker couples must consult the other members of their congregation to obtain permission to marry beforehand.
“I’m sure there are some Quakers who would find it disturbing that anybody would embark on a lifelong union without invoking the blessing of God, or seeking spiritual guidance before doing that,” said Hamm, who is a Quaker.
Galena Rhoades, a University of Denver professor who researches couples and families, said some religious leaders might see the movement as positive, because it “supports and encourages the institution of marriage.”
“We’re seeing marriage rates decline dramatically, and the number of unmarried people today is higher than it’s ever been in U.S. history,” Rhoades said. “The advantage of this is it makes marriage an option for people who may not otherwise have seen it as an option.”
That’s how things went for the Wangs. Charles Wang, 33, said the couple’s self-uniting ceremony fit their personalities. A traditional wedding would not have worked as well.
“Part of it is both of us don’t like any sort of attention on us,” he said.
The pair held a quiet, intimate ceremony — no guests — in their favorite spot in the District, a garden plot in the Armed Forces Retirement Home. He wore khakis and a white linen shirt. She wore her “fancy” jeans, a red blouse and a nice pair of earrings.
Afterward, the newlyweds meandered through a sea of pink, white, yellow and orange zinnias as the sun went down. Just the two of them.