Petition may lead to wider acceptance of common law marriage

Permanent resident of Israel and former member of Black Hebrews community asks to wed her partner, a Nigerian Christian.

A court petition filed last week by the Jerusalem Institute of Justice on behalf of a mixed-religion couple could have far-reaching consequences for Israel’s stringent marriage laws, The Jerusalem Post learned Thursday.
Filed in the Jerusalem Administrative Court on behalf of a woman identified only as Miss Jackson, an Israeli-born former member of the Black Hebrews community in Dimona, and her partner, Michael Johnson, a Nigerian Christian, the petition identifies a gap in the law where the two cannot be married due to their differing religious identities and cannot live together in a recognized common law marriage because she is a permanent resident and not a citizen. Johnson, who arrived here in 2007 after meeting Jackson in Ghana the same year, has no official recognized status in Israel.
“There is a gap in the marriage law in Israel because there is no recognition of civil marriages,” said attorney Michael Decker, representing the Jerusalem Institute of Justice. “People here cannot get married to someone of a different religion, and yet someone who is a permanent resident has no option to live in a common law marriage.
“It is totally unreasonable. They either have to allow civil marriages or allow people, even if they only have the status of a permanent resident, to live together under common law marriage.”
Jackson and Johnson were married last year in a symbolic ceremony at their African church in Tel Aviv, but because the church’s denomination is not officially recognized by the state, neither is the marriage. When the two applied for common law marriage status at the Interior Ministry, Johnson was threatened with deportation.
Marriages in Israel can take place only between people of the same recognized religion (recognized by the Interior Ministry), although common law marriages – determined after only a few months of cohabitation – are accepted if at least one of the couple is a citizen.
Decker explained, however, that those with permanent residency – a status granted to certain groups such as the Black Hebrews, some Palestinians or Jerusalem Arabs, some migrant workers and their children, and some Jewish immigrants, for example Jews from the Netherlands who would lose their Dutch citizenship if they acquired Israeli citizenship – grants rights almost equal to those of citizenship.
“It is not a great deal of people, but the Interior Ministry simply does not have any policy allowing permanent residents to have common law marriages,” he emphasized, adding that it was discriminatory against those who see Israel as their home yet are refused the right to marry the person of their choice.
According to Decker, Jackson and Johnson’s petition backs an earlier suit filed by the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, which was initially rejected because it did not present enough concrete cases.
However, with this case clearly highlighting the problems of Israel’s marriage law, Decker said that he was confident the court would recognize their right to at least live in a common law marriage, paving the way for others who can’t get married here to do the same.
After receiving the petition last week, the court said Johnson couldnot be deported until a court hearing takes place. This is set for theend of December.
There are an estimated 300,000 Israelis, mostly immigrants from theformer Soviet Union, who have either full citizenship or permanentresidency, but who cannot get married here because of the law that onlyallows people of the same religion to wed. In addition, a growingnumber of Israeli-born non-Jews are being granted permanent residency,and they can encounter the same problem when they seek to marry.
A bill backed by Israel Beiteinu currently making its way through theKnesset seeks to partially address the problem of civil unions forthose who cannot marry under religious law. However, it would allowunions between people with no registered religion, but would not allowmixed-religion couples to wed.