Ministerial panel approves very limited civil union bill

The Ministerial Committee for Legislation on Sunday approved the government's proposal for a bill allowing Israelis classified as having no religion to be registered as a couple and receive, though not immediately, the rights of married couples within Israel. Although the couples will be registered as having entered a "couple union," they will not be considered married in the way that Israelis married in religious courts are so considered. It will mark the first time in Israel's history that a mechanism will exist parallel to the religious courts that will grant state recognition to unions between men and women. But according to a coalition of human rights, non-Orthodox and other organizations championing religious pluralism, the "harm caused by the legislation is greater than the good." In a position paper sent to Justice Minister Yaakov Neeman when the bill was first circulated, the coalition wrote that the bill "does not create a worthy legal mechanism allowing freedom of choice in establishing families in Israel. Furthermore, among the various proposals for couple unions that have been discussed by the public in recent years, the proposal included in the current bill is the worst and most harmful of all." According to the bill, the government will appoint a registrar for couple unions. On condition that both partners are classified as not being members of any religion, they may sign an agreement to form a union and bring it for confirmation to the registrar. Before the registrar may confirm the agreement, the couple's request must be sent to the heads of all the recognized religious courts in Israel. They then examine the backgrounds of the partners to make certain that neither does, indeed, belong to one of the recognized religious sects in Israel. If they determine that either of them does belong to one of the sects, they may object to the union and the question of the religious status of the partner in question will be determined by the religious court whose leader registered the objection. Under the bill, certain rights accorded to married couples will not go into effect during the first 18 months after registration, to prevent situations where a man and woman enter a couple union for the benefits that they receive as a result of that union. Neither member of a couple that has formalized the union may commit bigamy. The bill also stipulates the way the couple may dissolve their union. If either side opposes the dissolution, the couple must try to resolve their differences through mediation or some other informal method of dispute resolution. In the end, however, as long as one member insists on breaking up, the union will be dissolved. The Israel Religious Action Center, the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, Na'amat and the other members of the coalition opposed to the legislation charged that it would create a separate sect within Israel whose members could only form unions among themselves, even though most of those registered as non-Jews considered themselves Jewish, mixed with the Jewish population in schools and the army, and were most likely to want to marry Jews. The coalition estimated that of all the Israeli couples who married abroad, only 170 marriages per year involved partners who were both classified as having no religion. These couples constituted 3.8 percent of all the Israeli couples that married abroad, according to the coalition. It also charged that the fact that the religious courts were the final arbiters of whether someone registered as not having a religion actually did have a religion was absurd. In the case of many immigrants from the former Soviet Union who were not halachically Jewish but regarded themselves as Jews, and had often suffered in their homeland because they were Jewish, they would be put in the absurd position of trying to prove to the religious courts that they were not Jewish, even if they felt they were. Furthermore, the bill gave the religious courts the right at any time to declare that a member of the couple was indeed a member of the religious community, thus automatically nullifying the couple union. There was also no time limit set for the religious court to make such a decision.