Court rules online civil marriages valid, upending Israel’s religious status quo

Interior Ministry now obligated to register as married Israeli couples who wed in online ceremonies through the US state of Utah

Jeremy Sharon is The Times of Israel’s legal affairs and settlements reporter

An Israeli couple marries in an online civil marriage ceremony under the auspices of Utah County in the US State of Utah. (Courtesy WedinSea)
An Israeli couple marries in an online civil marriage ceremony under the auspices of Utah County in the US State of Utah. (Courtesy WedinSea)

A ruling by the Lod District Court has upended the religious status quo in Israel and could augur a marriage revolution in the Jewish state.

In a decision published on Friday, Judge Efrat Fink ruled that the Population and Immigration Authority of the Interior Ministry is obligated to register as married couples who wed through an online civil marriage service carried out under the auspices of the US state of Utah.

The decision means that Israeli couples can now get married in civil ceremonies without leaving the country, granting a de facto victory to advocates in the decades-long struggle for civil marriage in Israel.

Orthodox political parties have long fought efforts to institute civil marriage in Israel, citing their religious objections to the state sanctioning interfaith marriages and other unions prohibited by Jewish law.

Friday’s ruling in effect circumvents the political roadblock, making civil marriage available to all Israelis without having to travel outside the country. It swiftly invoked the ire of Orthodox politicians, who denounced it as “undermining” the Jewish character of the state.

Israeli law only allows for marriage through Israel’s established religious institutions — e.g., the rabbinate for Jews, sharia courts for Muslims — meaning that hundreds of thousands of Israeli citizens cannot get married in Israel due to various religious barriers.

Although couples have been able to marry in civil ceremonies abroad and have them registered by the Population Authority for nearly six decades, this process involves considerable expense and inconvenience.

An Israeli couple after a civil marriage in Cyprus. (photo credit: Yossi Zamir/Flash90)
An Israeli couple after a civil marriage in Cyprus. (Yossi Zamir/Flash90)

In December 2020, at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, several Israeli couples got married through an online marriage service provided by Utah County, in Utah.

When these couples approached the Population and Immigration Authority to register as married their requests were approved, but then-interior minister Aryeh Deri, the leader of the ultra-Orthodox Shas party, later froze the process and ordered a legal review of the issue.

Other couples who had married through Utah’s service then filed lawsuits against the Interior Ministry demanding that their marriages also be approved.

The ministry published the legal opinion ordered by Deri in June 2021, arguing that since the couples were located in Israel at the time of their marriages, Israeli law applies to them and their marriages were therefore invalid.

By then, senior Yamina politician Ayelet Shaked had replaced Deri as interior minister, but she declined to intervene on the matter and did not offer an opinion.

In its decision on Friday, the Lod District Court ruled that the location of an online service is a highly complex issue — beyond what a Population Authority clerk is authorized to deal with.

The court went further, ruling that the only issue relevant for officials in the Population Authority is the validity of the documentation provided to them.

“When it became clear that the marriage certificate confirms that the applicants were married in a ceremony recognized by the State of Utah, and that the certificate was issued by an authority authorized to do so, the clerk should have been instructed to carry out the registration,” wrote the judge.

Although Israel has no provision for civil marriage, the Interior Ministry has been required to register as married couples who wedded in civil services performed abroad since a Supreme Court ruling on the issue in 1963.

In 2019, 9,950 couples who married abroad in which at least one spouse was an Israeli citizen were registered as married by the Interior Ministry.

But traveling abroad to get married became all but impossible during the pandemic, leaving thousands of people without any marriage option for an indefinite period of time.

In December 2019, Utah County launched its “remote appearance marriage” ceremonies as part of its efforts to streamline a series of administrative services for its residents.

Although Utah County officials never intended to facilitate civil marriage for foreign couples, Burt Harvey, the division manager of public services and tax administration for the Utah County Clerk Auditor, said he was happy that the county’s services would help those outside of the state and indeed the country.

Attorney Vlad Finkelshtein. (Courtesy)

Vlad Finkelshtein, an attorney who represented the couples in the lawsuit at the Lod District Court, welcomed the decision, describing it as a victory for human rights in Israel.

“The court made it crystal clear that any couple with a valid marriage certificate along with an apostille is entitled to get registered as married, and the location of the couple inside the Israeli borders is irrelevant for registration at the registration authority,” said Finkelshtein, whose WedinSea organization facilitates such marriages.

Rabbi Uri Regev, director of the Hiddush religious freedom organization, also praised the decision, describing it as “an opportunity for hundreds of thousands of Israeli couples who are either unable to marry in Israel due to the Orthodox Rabbinate’s monopoly on marriage of all Jews in Israel, or who are unwilling to marry through the Rabbinate for reasons of conscience.”

Orthodox MK Shlomo Karhi of the Likud party denounced the court’s decision, saying it “gnawed at the Jewish and democratic character” of the state, and vowed to change the law to circumvent the ruling.

MK Avi Maoz of the ultra-conservative Religious Zionist Party, said it was “unthinkable for judges in the State of Israel to undermine the Jewish state and carry out a quiet revolution to turn the State of Israel into a state of all its citizens. We will fix this soon, God willing.”

Shaked and the Population and Immigration Authority did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

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