High Court rejects petition over civil marriage

Court makes it clear it is not the appropriate venue for the issue, deferring instead to the Knesset.

A marriage in Tel Aviv 311 (R) (photo credit: Nir Elias/Reuters)
A marriage in Tel Aviv 311 (R)
(photo credit: Nir Elias/Reuters)
The High Court of Justice made clear Monday it would not accede to the petition filed by numerous progressive and pluralist groups asking for an injunction against the government to institute a framework for civil marriage in Israel.
The petition was submitted by the Israel Religious Action Center (IRAC), the Masorti Movement, Hiddush and several other groups.
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In responding to the petition, the court made clear it was not the appropriate venue for the issue, deferring instead to the Knesset.
“We recognize the problem and we are also sympathetic to it,” said Court President Dorit Beinisch, who was presiding along with Justices Edna Arbel and Yitzhak Amit.
“But the question is, what can be done [by the court] to help here?” Beinisch insisted that only legislative action could deal with the issue, not judicial involvement.
IRAC director Anat Hoffman expressed her frustration, saying she thought the court “was not brave” in its approach, and this was due to “recent attacks on the legitimacy of the High Court of Justice, which curtail its ability to boldly find solutions when other branches of government fail to do so.”
“We’re very disappointed, but we don’t intend to give up,” Hoffman said. “Our petition was an attempt to help real people who have real needs. Hundreds of thousands of people legally cannot get married in Israel and this is very unjust.”
The groups withdrew the petition in recognition of the fact that it would otherwise have been rejected by the court.
The various liberal and civil rights groups that submitted the petition in October say there are approximately 320,000 Israeli citizens who are not recognized as being Jewish according to Halacha (religious law), but are defined as being “without religious status.” This official title prevents them from marrying anyone belonging to any religious community, including Jews.
The absence of a framework for such people to get married, the organizations claim, violates the state’s Basic Law of Human Dignity and Liberty.
Additionally, according to the petitioners, there are thousands of interfaith couples who wish to marry but are prevented from doing so.
The dispute stems from the status quo arrangement in which all marriages in Israel are conducted through religious authorities, such as the Chief Rabbinate in the case of the Jewish community. These authorities do not permit interfaith marriages or marriages between those defined as being “without religious status” and those belonging to a specific religious community.
Couples who wed in civil ceremonies abroad are nevertheless recognized by the state as married.
In March 2010 the Knesset passed a law that enabled a couple in which both partners are defined as being “without religious status” to register in a civil partnership. Such partnerships have been utilized by only a handful of couples, however, since in the overwhelming majority of cases involving those defined as being “without religious status,” the other person in the marriage is Jewish.
Leading religious-Zionist Rabbi Yuval Cherlow said both those who support and those who oppose civil marriage need to accept they will not get everything they want, and therefore have to arrive at a compromise. According to him, the option of civil partnerships with equal rights to those who are married is the optimal solution.
Cherlow insisted the issue is one involving the Jewish character of the state, although he stated civil marriages are not recognized by Jewish law anyway and therefore would not create many of the feared halachic problems.
“This is the biggest Jewish community in the world and it’s important that it should have a Jewish identity,” he told The Jerusalem Post. “This is a question as to how our society views marriage – as a religious and Jewish institution or as something legal and civil – and it’s very important that it be Jewish.”
Rabbi David Stav, director of the religious- Zionist rabbinical group Tzohar, expressed his opposition to civil marriage when the petition was submitted, saying it legitimizes assimilation and encourages intermarriage between Jews and non-Jews “under the cover of the laws of the State of Israel.”
“We shouldn’t give the message that this is OK,” said Stav.
MK Nitzan Horowitz (Meretz) said in support of the petition the state had a “duty” to provide a solution to those of its citizens who could not marry in a religious ceremony.
“The situation in which Israel denies the basic human right of marriage to hundreds of thousands of its civilians is intolerable,” said Horowitz.
“The vast majority of the public supports the freedom of choice over marriage, but time after time the political system gives in disgracefully to pressure from ultra-Orthodox parties.”
At the High Court hearing Monday, Hanni Ofek, the attorney for the state, argued only the Knesset could deal with the matter.
“This is a sensitive issue that arouses strong public arguments and therefore needs to be addressed by the legislature. The petitioners are trying to create something here through administrative procedures and it needs to pass through the legislative crucible,” she said.
Lawyers for the petitioners said they agreed the government should act to remedy the problem, but argued it is “thwarting efforts to defend human rights in this regard.”
The director of Israel’s Masorti Movement, Yizhar Hess, stated earlier the “historic injustice done to thousands of citizens has to end.”
“Marriage is not a privilege but a basic right,” he said, “and the state has to enable everyone to marry according to their heart.”
Joanna Paraszczuk contributed to this report.