Published: Friday, May. 21st, 2021
Israeli couples flocked to Utah County’s online marriage portal for legal civil ceremonies they couldn’t have at home. Now, the country’s conservative Interior Ministry is denying the validity of their unions, and highlighting an ongoing issue with marriage rights in the country.
Utah County became an unlikely hotspot for international marriages last year, when it launched the world’s first fully-online marriage portal. When couples discovered they could legally marry there from anywhere in the world, as long as their officiant was within the state’s borders, the site was flooded with applications for licenses from locations near and far.
Many of these applications came from Israel -- where civil marriage ceremonies are illegal, and people who are not recognized as Jewish by the Orthodox Rabbinate are not allowed to marry.
In the past, Israeli couples denied the right to marry at home could still marry abroad, and then register their union with the Population and Immigration Authority. Many traveled to the U.S., where civil and same sex marriages are legal. When the COVID-19 pandemic put a sudden stop to all international travel, however, it left many out of options -- until they discovered virtual weddings through Utah County.
By January of 2021, 62 Israeli couples had already said “I do” with Utah’s help, as reported by The Salt Lake Tribune.
But the good news was short lived. When talk of the remote weddings reached Israel’s ultra-orthodox Interior Minister Rabbi Aryeh Deri, he immediately banned the practice, ordering the Authority to halt registration or validation of any marriages performed online.
A legal battle to protect the rights of these couples is now underway. Rabbi Uri Regev, a lawyer and the CEO of Hiddush (a nonprofit promoting religious freedom in Israel), says the Minister’s ban violates a constitutional provision that states the country must recognize legal civil ceremonies performed in other countries. Regev has filed a petition to the High Court on behalf of eight couples, as reported by KSL News.
Another attorney, Vlad Finkelshtein, has filed a complaint to the Hague Conference on Private International Law (HCCH), and with the US State Department, as reported in January by The Jerusalem Post.
The outcome of these actions -- and the legal standing of virtual marriages in Israel -- is still undecided, but lawyers feel confident that the couple’s certificates will (eventually) be honored, in part because public opinion is on their side.
The country’s strict religious laws affect a large percentage of the population, including interfaith, LGBTQ+, and binational couples. Converts, immigrants, migrants, and refugees also have difficulty marrying, because they don’t meet the strict religious requirements recognized by the state’s rabbinic authority for Judaism.
By some estimates, these groups account for well over 600,000 Jewish Israelis, or nearly 8.5% of the country’s population, who are not allowed to marry.
A 2018 survey showed that 70% of Israelis desired an equal alternative to orthodox marriage, 31% said they would choose a civil ceremony if given the chance, and a strong majority said that they support ending the Chief Rabbinate’s monopoly over marriage.
The question of virtual marriage’s legality will be important long after the pandemic ends, in Israel and beyond.
Virtual weddings have the potential to increase access to marriage by eliminating many economic and social barriers associated with traditional ceremonies.
In the same way that online ordination provides couples with a more diverse pool of officiants to choose from when deciding who will perform their ceremony, virtual ceremonies provide couples with an affordable, discrimination-free wedding ‘venue,’ no matter where they are in the world.