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Israel starts registering Utah ‘Zoom weddings,’ but fate of marriages still unclear

After initially flouting High Court ruling, Population Authority agrees to recognize marriages performed online by officiant in US; state has appealed against legality of practice

Judah Ari Gross is The Times of Israel's religions and Diaspora affairs correspondent.

Illustrative: Gal Sade Knigsfild and Nofar Almakias pose for a picture with face masks before their wedding in Moshav Yashresh on April 6, 2020 (Yossi Aloni/Flash90)
Illustrative: Gal Sade Knigsfild and Nofar Almakias pose for a picture with face masks before their wedding in Moshav Yashresh on April 6, 2020 (Yossi Aloni/Flash90)

The Population and Immigration Authority last week began registering the marriages of hundreds of couples that married online through the US state of Utah, after initially refusing to do so despite an explicit order from the High Court of Justice.

Due to a 2020 rule change in Utah, weddings conducted using videoconferencing software like Skype or Zoom are considered legally valid, provided at least one person involved — participant or officiant — is physically located in the state. This gave Israelis who don’t want to, or can’t, marry through the Chief Rabbinate an opportunity to legally marry in Israel, using an officiant in Utah. Some 600 Israelis, mostly LGBT and interfaith couples who cannot legally wed in Israel, have gotten married this way in the past three years.

Israel’s Interior Ministry has fought against these marriages in court twice, claiming that they were in fact conducted inside Israel — and not in Utah — and were thus not legitimate, but lost both times. The State Attorney’s Office appealed the rulings to the High Court of Justice on similar grounds last month.

In the meantime, the High Court has ruled that the lower courts’ orders stand and that all those who married through Utah should be registered as such by the Population Authority, with the understanding that these could be overturned in the future if the court accepts the state’s appeal against the practice.

Though the Population Authority quickly approved the marriages of the couples who were part of the initial lawsuit seeking recognition, it refused to do so for other couples married through Utah, despite the High Court explicitly ruling that all of the marriages should be recognized and not only those directly involved in the case. In response, the religious freedom organization Hiddush, which has represented the couples in these trials, sent a letter to the Population Authority, accusing it of violating the court’s orders.

For couples who married through Utah, lack of recognition of their marriages can carry major financial and lifestyle ramifications, including preventing partners from receiving parental leave if a baby is born and denying them certain tax benefits.

“In light of Hiddush’s letter, a number of couples informed us today that the Population Authority had decided to register all of the couples married through ‘Utah weddings,’ including those not involved in the lawsuit. In a clarifying telephone call with the office of the Population Authority, it was confirmed that the ban had been lifted and that their offices had been instructed to start the registration,” the organization said Thursday.

With few exceptions, Israel has no civil marriage, only religious marriage. Jews must marry through the Chief Rabbinate, Christians through a church, and Muslims through a Sharia court, which poses a major problem to the nearly half a million Israelis who are officially listed as being of “no religion,” as well as to LGBT Israelis and many interfaith couples.

A loophole to this lies in the fact that Israel recognizes marriages performed by other countries. For years, couples who could not legally marry in Israel held their weddings in nearby Cyprus.

In early 2020, as part of a small-government initiative, Utah began accepting weddings performed over videoconferencing software, which provided Israelis looking to marry outside the Rabbinate a way to do so that was cheaper and easier than flying abroad.

Though this loophole effectively gives Israelis access to civil marriage, divorces for Jewish Israelis are still technically controlled by the Chief Rabbinate.

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