Court rejects petition, leaves Civil Union Law intact

Judges uphold law enabling Israelis with no officially defined religion to join in a civil union recognized by the state.

Alternative wedding, Tel Aviv_311 (photo credit: Reuters)
Alternative wedding, Tel Aviv_311
(photo credit: Reuters)
Despite flaws, it is premature to strike down the Civil Union Law, the High Court said yesterday, rejecting petitions from civil rights groups. Nevertheless, the court commented in various parts of the ruling perceived imperfections in the law, leaving the door open for the issue to be revisited in the future.
The Jerusalem Institute of Justice and the Association for the Rights of Mixed Families were named as the groups that filed the petition.
The law, passed in March 2010, enables Israelis with no officially defined religion to join a civil union recognized by the state.
Even at the time it was approved, it was considered an imperfect and only partial solution to the many groups of Israelis who could not legally marry in Israel before its passage.
At the time, the legislation’s main sponsor, Knesset Law Committee chairman David Rotem (Yisrael Beytenu), described it as a first step to moving the country toward greater openness regarding civil unions.
The petitioners argued several grounds for overturning the law.
The core argument against the law is that it only allows civil unions to two people who the state has defined as “religionless.” In other words, if one person from the couple is religious or is even secular, but is listed by the state as having been born into a state-recognized religion, the couple cannot marry or get a civil union.
The four recognized religions in Israel are Judaism, Islam, Christianity and the Druse faith.
This means that people’s right to choose who they wish to marry is bound by the state in ways that it is not in most Western nations even after civil unions were created.
According to the petitioners and many opponents in the Knesset at the time it was passed, its passage has created a worse situation because now there is the appearance of the old problem having been solved, while the law really only solved the problems of a small portion of those couples who still get no state recognition or benefits.
Another argument was that it would increase the power of the Chief Rabbinate, by empowering it to weigh in on whether or not an Israeli citizen listed as “without religion” was actually religionless.
A large number of immigrants from the former Soviet Union were listed as religionless when they moved to Israel.
The petitioners also complained that the law discriminates against those who obtain a civil union, as they do not possess the same rights as those who marry regarding age of marriage, adoption rights among others.
Furthermore, the law does not remove internal religious bars to marriage such as Judaism’s many forbidden unions, including a Cohen marrying a divorcee.
The law also does not provide any solution to homosexual couples.
The court declined to overturn the law at this time, noting that the law had solved the problems of many couples.
It also noted that the law had only been passed in 2010 and that time is needed to work out some of the issues being complained about.
The court advised the petitioners to turn to the Justice Ministry for resolution of some issues, such as certain forms that civil union applicants must sign, a judgment which the petitioners called demeaning.
For example, people who consider themselves Jewish, but only have a Jewish father, can marry other religionless persons under the law, but need to sign a declaration that they have no religion, regardless of their beliefs.
Although the court did not refer to the law’s full political history, the judges may have unofficially been taking into account that the 2010 law, however incomplete, was the culmination of a process started in 2002 to solve a decades old problem.
Even in its incomplete version, many Knesset members opposed its passage on the grounds that they were opposed to creating any mechanism for couples to get recognition outside of the religious- state apparatus.
At the time many politicians who supported the legislation said it was important to show that at least part of the marriage problems could be solved – whereas the judges might have been worried that striking down the law would send the opposite signal.
The Jerusalem Institute for Justice’s Calev Meyers, said that a democracy should never have allowed “such a law on its books” and that he hoped that those political parties who say they fight for citizens’ rights of this kind will, after the upcoming elections, finally throw their support behind full civil marriage. Meyers is a Messianic (Christian) Jew.
Currently, Israelis may still be recognized as civily married if they are civily married overseas, and then apply for recognition of their status by the Interior Ministry upon their return.