Marriages online: Utah County’s system a hit with Israeli couples

The option is seen as a way around strict marriage laws but now is under government review.

(Illustration by Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune)

The phones at the Utah County clerk’s office just keep ringing, many of the calls coming from those seeking marriage licenses. While that may not be surprising, given the county’s reputation as a haven for big families, there’s a twist.

A number of the calls are coming from Israel. In fact, between Dec. 28 and Jan. 13, the county issued 62 licenses to Israeli couples. About a third of the 474 marriage licenses that were issued during the same period were to couples outside of Utah.

The county has seen increased demand for its online marriage certificate services after the recent recognition of a handful of remotely issued Utah certificates by the Israeli government.

The move is monumental for Israel, which does not permit civil marriages within the country. In the past, couples who did not want or could not be married in a religious ceremony, such as those who are LGBTQ, interfaith or nonreligious couples, have had to travel outside of the country to be married civilly before bringing back their civil marriage license to register with Israeli officials. The pandemic, of course, severely limited couples’ ability to travel outside of Israel for such marriages.

Utah County’s marriage system offered a loophole. The entire process — from applying for a license to saying “I do” and receiving a marriage certificate — can be done online. In fact, couples don’t even need to be physically together for the ceremony as long as a Utah officiant can see and hear both of them over video call.

The online system launched in January 2020 to better meet residents’ needs, but officials never imagined such a demand from overseas. Burt Harvey, who supervises the county’s Marriage and Passport Office, said about a third of the licenses the county has processed recently are for Israeli couples.

“It surprised us. We’re just trying to keep up and our staff is working to serve as many couples as we can,” Harvey said. “We’re glad we’re able to use technology to innovate and make this easier.”

The attention may be short-lived, however. Israeli Interior Minister Aryeh Deri, who leads the country’s ultra-Orthodox political party, opposes the recognition of such online marriages being performed remotely in the country. He announced an investigation into the recognition of the Utah marriage certificates and froze the registration process for couples who had already submitted their Beehive State marriage certificates.

The Israeli newspaper Haaretz reported that these certificates were the first the government has received in which a civil ceremony was performed remotely from within the country and that officials didn’t realize they should have sought approval from more senior administrative and legal officials until after they had already granted it.

Quinn Mecham, the coordinator of Brigham Young University’s Middle Eastern studies program, said Deri’s opposition isn’t surprising.

“The price that these ultra-orthodox parties want for supporting the government is to have control over the things that they most care about, which would be religious: things like schooling and marriages.”

He believes the ultimate legality of the issue will be settled in Israel’s High Court of Justice, which he characterized as reasonably independent.

University of Utah law professor Amos Guiora, an Israeli citizen and secular Jew who splits his time between Utah and Israel, agreed that the High Court is the appropriate route for couples to voice their grievances. But he doesn’t think the case will be a no-brainer either way.

The Jerusalem Post first reported last week that five couples with marriage certificates from Utah are filing a petition with Israel’s High Court against the Interior Ministry. An attorney has also filed complaints to The Hague and the U.S. State Department over Israel’s refusal to recognize a U.S. legal document.

Guiora said that the hoopla in Israel over the marriage certificates reflects a larger tension between “the degree of religiosity and the extent to which religion imposes on us.”

Here the Rabbinate really controls our lives from cradle to grave,” he said. “The religious-secular fight here in Israel is a huge issue.”

Meanwhile, Utah County’s fully automated marriage system is receiving national and international attention. Harvey said as far as he knows, Utah County is the only entity in the world with a fully automated marriage licensing and certification process and that foreign countries and other states have reached out to Utah County with interest in adopting similar systems.

The system cost $50,000 to develop and license, but Harvey said the office broke even on it last year. In 2020, the office issued 3,654 more licenses than it did the previous year. Not only has the system already paid for itself, but it’s also paying for the entire department’s costs of issuing licenses and staffing to service the increased demand.

“In terms of taxpayer savings, this is huge,” Harvey said. “This is one full department in the county that is funded completely without any need for tax dollars.”