In step toward civil marriage, Jerusalem court accepts ‘Zoom weddings’ from Utah

A Jerusalem District Court ordered the Interior Ministry on Thursday to recognize marriages conducted over video-conferencing through the US state of Utah, in another step toward easing access to civil marriage in the State of Israel.

Just before the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic, the state of Utah reformed its marriage process, allowing ceremonies to be performed through video conferencing software, such as Zoom, as long as at least one of the people involved — including the officiant — was located physically in the state.

The move was intended to fulfill a conservative lawmaker’s campaign promise to “bring the [Utah] Clerk/Auditor’s office into the 21st century,” but it had the unintended consequence of dramatically democratizing a once-prohibitively expensive loophole that circumvents Israel’s religious marriage complex.

The State of Israel recognizes only religious marriages — Jews must marry through the rabbinate, Christians through their church and Muslims through Sharia courts — a situation that often causes trouble for interfaith couples, couples where one of the partners is not considered Jewish according to Orthodox law, but is also not of a different faith, as well as LGBT couples.

In the past, Israelis who either wanted or needed to avoid the religious marriage system had to physically travel abroad to perform the ceremony. With this new Utah option, the couple and their witnesses could all remain at home — often literally — while only the officiant had to be physically present in Utah.

This Utah system is therefore far cheaper and easier than traveling abroad for a wedding, which was also not an option for much of the pandemic. With all of the paperwork and assorted fees, it costs roughly NIS 2,000 ($561) for an Israeli to marry in Utah. A marriage in Cyprus, not including flights, costs upward of NIS 3,000 ($841).

However, Israelis who got married through the state of Utah quickly found that the Interior Ministry was refusing to recognize the marriages and update their status on their identity cards and in the official state records. Former interior minister Aryeh Deri openly opposed the Utah marriages, freezing the recognition process and ordering a review of the matter.

In court, the Israeli government argued that despite the official Utah license, these weddings were in fact held in Israel, not in Utah, and that they therefore did not meet the state’s requirement for religious marriages.

Illustrative: The Jerusalem District Court on September 20, 2012. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Earlier this year, a Lod District Court ruled in one such case that these arguments did not hold water, as the legally significant aspects of the ceremony, namely the licensing and registration, were indeed performed in the state of Utah. That case, however, dealt only with a specific couple. The case that was resolved in the Jerusalem District Court on Thursday dealt with eight couples in a class-action suit brought by the religious rights group Hiddush and raised the issue more generally.

The presiding judge, Avraham Rubin, ruled in their favor on nearly all of the same grounds as in the Lod case, and ordered the state to begin recognizing the marriages immediately.

However, the Attorney General’s Office can still appeal the decision and bring it before the High Court of Justice for a final ruling. The government has yet to decide if it will do so. Such an appeal would be unlikely to succeed, coming with not only one but two different lower courts ruling on the matter.

Though the Population, Immigration and Border Authority (PIBA) is meant to begin recognizing the marriages immediately, it could use bureaucratic tools to delay the process — despite this violating the spirit of the court ruling — until the government makes its decision on whether to appeal the ruling.

Neither PIBA nor Interior Minister Ayelet Shaked, whose office controls PIBA, immediately responded to a request for comment. In addition to her silence on the issue on Thursday, Shaked has remained mum on her view of the Utah option throughout her tenure as interior minister.

For the plaintiffs, getting state recognition of their marriage can carry major financial and lifestyle ramifications.

Sapir Zeelon, who was part of the appeal, told The Times of Israel that in her case, she was rushing to get her marriage recognized because her wife, Gili, is due to give birth shortly.

If their marriage is not recognized, Sapir won’t be eligible for the parental leave benefits that spouses are entitled to and they will have a harder time getting her custody over the baby and ensuring that the baby is given her last name.

Sapir and Gili Zeelon get married over Zoom through a wedding officiant in Utah in January 2021. (Courtesy: Sapir Zeelon)

Zeelon and her now-wife were initially planning on going through the arduous progress of becoming “known to the public,” the Israeli equivalent of a common-law marriage, which carries many, but not all, of the same benefits as a standard marriage, but requires a good deal of documented proof of a shared life.

“We were going back and forth between getting married and getting ‘known to the public.’ When I looked into common-law marriage, I saw that you had to provide like 80 million pieces of evidences and documents that you need to provide, and I thought, that is such a bummer, that is so unfair. Someone who wants to get married just does it and that’s it. They don’t have to prove how long they have been living together or show photographs of them together. So I said, let’s just get married,” she said.

“And then came the corona.”

Zeelon said she found out about the Utah option during one of Israel’s first lockdowns during the coronavirus pandemic, reading about it on a Facebook group she had been apart of that was focused on the issue of civil marriages in Israel.

“We said, this is great. It’s a 15-minute ceremony on Zoom and that’s it, we’re married,” she said.

Zeelon and her wife were married via Zoom in Utah just a few weeks after she learned that the option existed. The ceremony took place in early January 2021, during Israel’s third nationwide lockdown.

“My mom had to be on the Zoom call from her house,” Zeelon said.

The officiant was a justice of the peace who struggled a bit with the couple’s Israeli names, but others who have gotten married through Utah have used a local rabbi.

Indeed, the Hiddush appeal included two Reform rabbis from Utah who performed weddings for Israelis.

Zeelon said that now that the court ruled in their favor, she and her wife have scheduled an appointment with PIBA to have their marriage recognized and get new ID cards to reflect it, before their baby is born.

The head of Hiddush, Uri Regev, hailed the ruling as a victory for proponents of civil marriage.

“This is a breakthrough that enjoys the clear support of the majority of the Jewish public in Israel, which wants free marriage and equal recognition by the state for all types of marriage, as part of the promise made in the declaration of independence regarding freedom of religion and equality,” Regev said.

The court ruling was also praised by secular Israeli lawmakers. This included Finance Minister Avigdor Liberman, whose Yisrael Beytenu party generally represents Israelis from the former Soviet Union, hundreds of thousands of whom fall under the category of people who are not considered Jewish under Orthodox law.

“‘Utah marriages’ are for people who were forced to marry through Zoom using a wedding officiant in Utah because there are no civil marriages in Israel. It’s an insufficient model, but I applaud it because it is a step toward a liberal country built on the value of ‘live and let live,’” Liberman said.

The finance minister also called for the attorney general to not appeal the case and to allow the district court ruling to remain in force.

The decision was also applauded by Yesh Atid MK Yorai Lahav Hertzanu, a member of the LGBT community.

“We won’t stop fighting for civil marriages in the State of Israel. Until we succeed, this ruling opens an important channel for those who can’t or don’t want to marry on the religious track,” he said.

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