In Germany, marriage has been controlled by the state for over a century, with religious ceremonies optional. A new law should change all that, but it's raising some questions -- especially among immigrants.
The law removes the need for a civil ceremony
German couples will soon be able to get married in church without first going through a civil ceremony in the registry office for the first time in 130 years. The new rules were recently announced with several other changes to the Personenstandsrecht, or law of civil status, and take effect starting in January 2009.
Civil marriages were introduced in Germany in 1875, when purely religious unions were made illegal. Couples are still allowed to marry in churches, synagogues and other religious institutions, but only after first having a civil ceremony. Priests had faced the possibility of jail or being fined for marrying couples who had not concluded a civil marriage before going to the altar, although in recent years the offence has been treated as a minor misdemeanor.
Some fear the the new rules will lead to multiple and forced marriages
Many are unhappy with the changes, including Seyran Ates, a lawyer and women's rights activist. She has criticized the new laws, telling the German daily Westdeutsche Allgemeine Zeitung that they will open the floodgates for multiple and forced marriages among Muslims. Under Islamic law, a man is allowed to be married to four separate women at any one time. However, women and children have very few rights in purely religious unions.
"From now on, a practice that is forbidden in Turkey can take place freely here," Ates said.
The head of Central Council of Ex-Muslims, Mina Ahadi, has characterized the planned changes as a step backwards. Women are often forced into marriages conducted by imams and have no rights. Ahadi added that in addition to Muslim men possibly engaging in multiple unions, this change will also open the door for minors to be taken as brides. Ahadi is calling on the German parliament to reverse the decision.
Politicians speak out
A newly wed couple emerges from the church
Members of the German parliament, or Bundestag, say that it won't just be Muslim men who abuse the system. Max Stadler, a representative from the opposition free-market liberal Free Democratic Party said that the state does much more than hand out marriage certificates. Under German law, proof that a former marriage is completely dissolved must be shown prior to a civil union.
Left party member Wolfgang Neskovic warned that the new law may lead to "bizarre discrepancies," especially if a couple chooses to have both a civil and religious wedding.
"In the event of both a civil and religious double marriage then one is, for all intents and purposes, married to two partners," he added.
New law not finalized
Thousands of couples get married in Germany every year
There does seem to be some hope for the critics. Social Democrat Dieter Wiefelspuetz, a member of the Bundestag, has called for a review of the new legislation after the summer break.
Wiefelspuetz warned that if even just a fraction of the apprehensions that have been expressed becomes a reality, then the social structure of the nation will experience a massive backslide.
Despite the new rules, all couples choosing to tie the knot in church only should beware. Their marriage has little legal force: rights of inheritance, tax advantages, support in case of divorce and other standard rights of next-of-kin cannot be legally enforced.