Overview of Civil Marriage

City hall ceremony

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A civil marriage takes place without any religious affiliation and meets the legal requirements of the state or location of the wedding. Some countries require that a couple have their first marriage ceremony be a civil ceremony in a public location and that the ceremony is open to the public. The couples can then be married in a religious setting and have a religious ceremony performed by a member of the clergy.

What Is a Civil Marriage?

A civil marriage is one where the marriage ceremony has a government or civil official performing the ceremony rather than a religious leader.

Reasons for a Civil Ceremony

There are a number of reasons why couples may opt for a civil ceremony. Most are based on personal decisions of the couple related to religion or location of the wedding.

  • If neither person is religious, a member of an organized religion, or does not feel comfortable with a religious wedding ceremony, they may opt for a civil ceremony.
  • The two partners are from differing religious faiths and they choose a civil wedding to remain neutral and omit both religions from the wedding ceremony. The couple may choose a civil ceremony rather than choose an interfaith one.
  • The couple wants to have a creative or non-traditional ceremony and a member of the clergy will not perform the creative elements.
  • The couple is choosing a non-traditional wedding location and not a house of worship. Some clergy will only perform wedding ceremonies in a house of worship, so a civil ceremony allows the couple to pick the location of the vows.
  • The couple wants to write their own vows and ceremony and not be restricted to any religious wedding requirements.
Couple celebrating their marriage with guests
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Legal Standing

A civil ceremony is legally binding and does not require any additional steps. In a religious ceremony, a marriage license is required to make the wedding legal. Religious ceremonies are not actually legally binding and still require a marriage license from the local city hall to legally bind the marriage.

Couple signing their marriage certificate
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The details of who can officiate a civil ceremony vary from state to state, and even from county to county within states. If you are planning on a civil ceremony for your wedding, it's logical to pick the location and then check the requirements of that jurisdiction. In most case, the officiant is a legal official, which could include a judge, county clerk, court clerk, notary public, justice of the peace, or a magistrate. The city clerk's office or local marriage license bureau will be able to inform you of the local requirements. Note that there are likely fees and paperwork involved for both the officiant and any local filing requirements of the municipality.

In many states, it is possible to have a friend or non-legal official conduct the wedding ceremony. A friend or family member can easily get ordained online through a relatively simple process. If you are choosing this for your wedding ceremony, check the legal restrictions of the state and county where your wedding will take place. Not all states recognize an online ordination certificate and some may require additional paperwork and fees. Another option is a one-time license, which allows a friend or family member to be ordained to officiate at only one wedding ceremony. This also varies state by state, has different requirements, and may require the officiant to appear before a judge in that municipality prior to the wedding.


There are no requirements as to where a civil ceremony wedding must take place. As long as the bride, groom, and officiant can get there, the location is legally binding. This flexibility allows the wedding party to plan the ceremony in a park, backyard, or any unusual location. If the couple wants to have a civil wedding ceremony, but still be married in a house of worship, that can be a tricky situation. It's best to negotiate the plan with the civil officiant, the clergy member, and the couple to try to come up with a plan that suits all parties.

Newlywed grooms kissing
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