The Supreme Court has ruled that the Interior Ministry is obligated to register as married couples who wed in online civil ceremonies through the American state of Utah, in a ruling which is certain to further increase the government’s ire toward the court.
The decision means that couples who cannot marry in Israel through the Chief Rabbinate, or do not wish to do so, are now legally able to get married without physically leaving the country. Israel has no civil marriage mechanism due to the objection of religious political parties, but recognizes civil unions formed abroad.
The court’s ruling is a significant win for advocates of civil marriage in Israel who have campaigned for it for decades, but will be bitterly opposed by the coalition’s religious parties, which denounced the decision as soon as it was published.
“The Supreme Court’s recognition on Purim of civil marriages performed over the Zoom app is a sad joke at the expense of all of Israel’s religious and traditional citizens, and expresses more than anything the desire to advance the values of a state of all its citizens and erase the Jewish identity of the state,” said Shas MK Moshe Arbel.
He added that it underscored the need to push through the government’s radical judicial overhaul agenda.
Tuesday’s ruling caps a legal battle going back to December 2020, when three couples had their online Utah civil marriages registered by the Interior Ministry’s Population and Immigration Authority, whereupon then-interior minister Aryeh Deri ordered a halt to such registrations.
Some 1,200 Israeli couples have wed through Utah’s online marriage registration process since 2020, according to attorney Vlad Finkelstein who represented the couples in court. The marriages are conducted through Utah state officials and county clerk offices via video conference calls.
The couples can be physically present in Israel, or anywhere else around the world.
The option became attractive to some couples due to the tight restrictions on foreign travel during the COVID-19 pandemic, in which thousands of couples were unable to get married in Israel or fly abroad.
In December 2020, at the height of the 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 frozen by Deri, the leader of the ultra-Orthodox Shas party, who 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.
In June 2021, the ministry published a legal opinion 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.
Two separate petitions were filed, the first by a group of couples represented by independent attorney Vlad Finkelstein to the Lod District Court, and the second by the Hiddush religious freedom organization to the Jerusalem District Court.
Both courts ruled in favor of the petitioners, leading the Interior Ministry under former minister Ayelet Shaked to appeal the decisions to the Supreme Court.
In its decision issued on Tuesday, the High Court ruled that the clerks of the Population and Immigration Authority were not legally authorized to challenge the validity of the Utah marriages and refuse to register them.
Deputy Supreme Court President Uzi Vogelman reasoned that the Population Authority’s task is not to review and rule on the validity of a marriage certificate, but rather to register any marriage document that is issued by an authorized clerk in a third country, and which has received an apostille stamp.
The justice noted the legal complexities of the case and the question of whether the marriages could be said to have taken place in Israel or Utah, but insisted that since there is no law specifically addressing the issue the Population and Immigration Authority could not set policy in this regard.
“Registrars [of the Population Authority] are not entitled to make decisions on complex legal questions when presented with a legal public document,” wrote Vogelman in his ruling.
“He should have registered the couple as married in accordance with valid public document that was presented to him,” continued Vogelman, adding that this is what such clerks must now do.
The Supreme Court’s ruling upholds that of the Lod District Court in July last year, which like the Supreme Court ruled the Population and Immigration Authority had no legal right to refuse to register the marriages.
The ruling makes civil marriage available to all citizens in Israel without having to leave the country, and is a significant win for advocates of civil marriage who have been fighting for decades for such a right.
“From now on, no one has to travel abroad to get married if they don’t want to wed through Chief Rabbinate or other religious authorities,” said Finkelstein, the attorney.
“It is a great solution for everyone who cannot get married here in Israel. Now they can marry from wherever they like and do not have have to travel abroad to do so.”
In Israel, all marriages must be performed through established religious institutions, such as the Chief Rabbinate for Jews. There are some 450,000 Israeli citizens who have no religious classification in the Population and Immigration Authority – mostly citizens from the former Soviet Union or their children who are descended from Jews – who have no way to legally marry.
Tens of thousands of citizens are also prevented from marrying due to problematic legal statuses in Jewish law, while gay and lesbian couples can also not legally wed.
In 2019, before the global COVID-19 outbreak, 9,550 couples registered civil marriages conducted abroad with the Interior Ministry.
Yisrael Beytenu leader Avigdor Liberman welcomed the ruling, saying it was “good that the Supreme Court stood up to the religious coercion of Deri and his friends who are trying to lead us into a state of religious law.”
Shas MK Moshe Arbel of Shas decried the decision however, saying it demonstrates the need to push through the government’s radical judicial overhaul agenda.
“The Supreme Court’s recognition on Purim of civil marriages performed over the Zoom app is a sad joke at the expense of all of Israel’s religious and traditional citizens, and expresses more than anything the desire to advance the values of a state of all its citizens and eras the Jewish identity of the state,” said Arbel.
Finkelstein who represented some of the couples in court hailed the ruling, however saying it would be beneficial to all those who wish to marry in a civil ceremony.
“From now on, no one has to travel abroad to get married if they don’t want to do wed through Chief Rabbinate or other religious authorities,” said Finkelstein.
Hiddush director Rabbi Uri Regev said Israel was “the only Western democracy in the world that denies its citizens the freedom of marriage, due to the demands of the religious parties,” and welcomed the ruling which he said would “open an additional avenue” for Israelis to marry.
“This religious coercion is contrary to the wishes of a large majority of the Jewish public,” asserted Regev, and said his organization would provide the general public with information as to how to marry through the Utah system.