Six hundred and thirty-eight weddings.
That’s how many ceremonies J. Walter Roth has officiated since 1992.
“I used to average 30-50 a year, but the last couple of years, it has increased — maybe because of the Iraq War?” said Roth, who’s married many Marines and other servicemen.
One such service was last October. Chris Cotten was there to marry his sweetheart, Alexandra Sweet. There was nothing unusual in that; what was unusual was the number of guests accompanying them. More often than not, only a few people come with the bride and groom. This couple had about 20 in attendance. The group was so big that when they pulled into the Mount Vernon Government Center parking lot where the Democrats were staging a rally, they thought that the Marines were there to protest.
They weren’t and everything proceeded as planned — another successful marriage for Roth. While the government center is a convenient place for some to get married, Roth said that he has officiated at just as many in private homes and other places. Because he’s certified by the courts, he can marry anywhere in the State of Virginia.
While he is close enough to walk to the government center, he often goes as far as Great Falls and other places for weddings. He is paid a maximum fee of $30 and the state pays him 37 cents a mile if he has to drive. Officiants are allowed to accept gratuities, but cannot solicit them.
ROTH EXPLAINED that he got into the business when he read an article about marriage officiants being fired because they were taking large sums of money. After the article, Roth inquired about being an officiant; he was told that they had 250 other inquiries. Nevertheless, he completed the application, which asked how long he lived in the community; what his education was; and whether or not he had a criminal record. He also needed three letters of recommendation.
“My friends wrote that I had ‘a good sense of humor’ and that I was ‘a nice guy,’” Roth said. “I thought it would be nice to do this for my community.”
A few weeks later, Roth was selected along with 49 others. He went to the Fairfax County Courthouse and was sworn in after hearing from staff and judges and learning about marriage licenses. In all five people are appointed to each magisterial district; each one appointed as an officer of the court. The only thing Roth never did figure out was why they required each officer to pay a $500 bond. He couldn’t understand the reason for it since he wasn’t using any government property; they told him, ‘because it’s a law.’
With his certification in hand, Roth started officiating, his first ceremony was in May, 1992. Roth is retired and married with three grown sons; he officiated at the wedding of one of his sons.
MOST WEDDINGS go smoothly, but Roth said that there have been a few isolated cases when he has had to refuse to perform.
“If I see somebody who is under duress or the influence of alcohol, I will not do the service,” Roth said. “It doesn’t happen often — you have to have a feel for it.”
One such case turned out to have a happy ending. Roth arrived at a private home one day to perform a wedding. It was a dark, dreary day and when he got there, there were no lights on in the house. When he rang the bell, it took awhile for somebody to answer. The bride and groom were there, but they kept stalling, saying they were waiting for the rings, etc. Roth finally said, “If you have any hesitancy, you don’t want to ask me to marry you. Take a few days and call me again.”
They followed his advice, and called him the next week. This time, the parents were there. Apparently the parents were not in favor of the wedding initially and weren’t going to witness it. However in talking about it they decided to come, making for a much more certain and joyous occasion.
Roth said that another time, he was asked to marry a Korean woman and a European man; the man appeared to be sick and Roth was a little hesitant and asked if he was feeling OK. It turned out that the man had narcolepsy and always looked that way, and so the service proceeded.
One couple said that they couldn’t pay the fee. In that case, Roth asked if they could give a couple of dollars. This way, he could show that a fee was collected and the ceremony was legal. They gave him $5 and mailed him the remaining $25 shortly thereafter.
Services are short — 10 to 15 minutes at the most. Many people do readings or give short speeches. In the case of the couple where the parents were hesitant to attend, the groom addressed his parents, saying that it was nice that they came to their own conclusion and were happy about their children getting married.
Roth said that Virginia does not require any witnesses to be present. It also has no waiting period and doesn’t require any blood tests. As a result, many people come from Maryland and the District of Columbia to get married in Virginia. One would think that this makes marriage far too easy, but Roth said that he doesn’t judge. He’s seen many pregnant brides and other unusual circumstances, but said, “My function is to perform the ceremony.”