Part 1 Legal Marriage
When I first started practicing Wicca people would ask me if it was a “real religion”. I didn't know how to answer the question. Who decides if a religion is “real”. When I asked people what they meant by “real religion” they usually asked if Wiccans could perform weddings.
Who can perform weddings is determined at the state and local level in the USA. Some states have very strict requirements others don't. My friends in Colorado tell me they don't have to have any officiant at all, couples can marry themselves. If you want to get married please check the laws in your state. Most of my information is for New York State, (but not New York City which has stricter rules).
To get legally married a couple must usually purchase a “marriage license” from a city or county court. A license authorizes one to do something. In this case it gives the couple permission to get married, usually within a stated time period from the issuing of the license. (A marriage license can expire and some licenses have a twenty-four hour waiting period between purchasing the license and performing the ceremony.) The couple usually must take the license to someone authorized by their city, county, or state to perform the “marriage ceremony”. This usually includes “officers of the court” it could be anyone from the mayor to the clerk issuing the license. Some licenses are only good for ceremonies performed in their jurisdiction so make sure you can get married where you want to have the ceremony. Because most religions have some form of marriage ceremony the government usually recognizes religious officiants to perform the ceremony. The officiant, if there is one, must sign the “marriage certificate” certifying that the ceremony was performed at the time and place stated. The certificate is also signed by the couple, and their witnesses, then returned to the office that issued it to be kept on record. In New York State there is a hefty fine for officiants who fail to file the certificate in a timely manner.
Marriages by ship Captains at sea were recognized for two reasons 1) ship journeys used to take a long time 2) Captains were the highest legal authorities on board. New York State does not recognize ship Captains as officiants. However New York State has a general policy that if a couple thinks that an officiant is authorized, the marriage is legal. This protects the couple getting married, even if their officiant is a deliberate fraud their marriage is still legal.
Allowing someone other than an officer of the court to sign a marriage certificate is no different than authorizing a mechanic to certify that a repair has been completed on a mechanical violation ticket. The court really doesn't care who does the ceremony they just want a responsible person to see that it was done
This procedure is the result of thousands of years of legal precedent. It goes back to Roman and Germanic law regarding marriage. There are traditionally four conditions that must be satisfied for a couple to be married: 1) They must declare that they consent to be married, 2) there must be witnesses to this declaration, 3) they must have sex, 4) they must live together. Failure to consummate the wedding used to be grounds for annulment (annulment means the marriage never took place). So called “common law” marriages are based on the fulfillment of these four conditions. The act of publicly presenting yourself as married is counted as the declaration before witnesses. There are only a few states that still recognize common law marriages. In most states you are not legally married unless you have completed a marriage certificate.
New York State at least has no official position on what a marriage ceremony must involve. The Civil Ceremony simply requires that the couple publicly consent to be married. (“Do you take this woman...”). Anything else (rings. candles, kisses, “I now pronounce you...”) is irrelevant. A couple is married when they publicly declare they are, and fill out the paperwork. Because the government does not want to get involved in religion there are no requirements of what must happen in a religious marriage ceremony. The policy of the court is that: if the people involved believe that a couple is married, then it does not matter what the ceremony is. Going through with a religious wedding ceremony implies consent to be married.
There are some people who claim that marriage is a religious issue and the government should get out of it and leave it to the churches. There is little basis for this position. The Catholic Church did not recognize marriage at all until they had become a major source of civil authority. And marriage is the only “sacrament” that is not performed by the priest but by the people getting married. The priest witnesses the sacrament and performs a mass. (Although in the Eastern Orthodox church it is performed by the priest).
Marriage is a civil issue regulated by the courts because it involves property and other rights
that are frequently brought before the courts. In our current time when people are free to set up house together without getting married they are finding that they don't have the legal protections
that legally married people have. If you and your unmarried partner contribute equally to your expenses but only one of you has your name on the property you might be in real trouble if your partner dies. If you do any research on the rights denied
, and the problems faced, by same sex-couples who cannot get married you will see how important legal marriage is. (List of 1,138 Federal Rights, Benefits, and Privileges of Marriage
So called “civil unions” and “domestic partnerships” are doing more harm to traditional marriage than same-sex marriages ever could. There are more straight couples choosing these “alternatives” than there are same-sex couples. But “civil unions” and “domestic partnerships” do not offer the same rights and protections as traditional marriage. Including the right to have a court oversee your divorce settlement. If you don't get legally married you can't get legally divorced.