Justice Ministry Drafts Civil Marriage Law for 'Refuseniks'

Law to apply to non-Jews, not to those opting to avoid religious marriage or those forbidden marriage by Jewish law.

The Justice Ministry is drafting a bill that would institute a type of civil marriage for couples who cannot marry in Israel according to Jewish law. Justice Minister Haim Ramon intends to introduce the bill during the Knesset's winter session.

The law is aimed at solving a problem faced by 300,000 Israelis who cannot marry because one of the partners is not Jewish, or his or her Jewishness cannot be determined. Ramon's proposal is more restrictive than the civil marriage (or "matrimonial covenant") plan devised by a committee headed by Roni Bar-On during the last Knesset session.

The ministerial legislative committee rejected Sunday a private member's bill submitted by a group of MKs headed by Yuri Stern (Yisrael Beiteinu) for a civil-marriage registry that would also deal with couples who are eligible for an Orthodox marriage, but do not want one. This bill, which resembles others submitted in the last Knesset session, would permit any couple in which the man and women are at least 18 and not currently married to register as a couple in a separate registry administered by the Justice Ministry. The couples would receive the same marriage benefits as other married couples, and in the event of divorce, it would be handled in family court and not the religious courts.

Ramon told the committee Sunday that he had instructed the ministry's legislative staff to draw up a stricter draft bill that would solve the problem of the "marriage refuseniks," but not that of people who are prohibited from marrying by religious law, such as mamzerim (children born of an adulterous relationship), or those who simply want to avoid a religious marriage.

Ramon asked Stern's group to refrain from presenting its bill during the current Knesset session. He promised that if they complied, when the government's proposal is introduced in the winter session, the Knesset will have the opportunity to discuss both bills together. If Stern and his colleagues were to go ahead with their private member's bill, however, the government would oppose it.

The Shas representative on the ministerial committee, Minister Meshulam Nahari, opposed the private member's bill.

Ramon said that the coalition agreement between Kadima and Shas permits the government to promote legislation to solve the problem of "marriage refuseniks," adding that he had no doubt that Shas would support the government's proposal.

About two years ago the committee chaired by Bar-On first submitted a matrimonial covenant bill. Then justice minister Yosef (Tommy) Lapid (Shinui) tried to push it through the Knesset as a civil-marriage alternative for Jewish couples who wanted to sidestep the religious establishment. The Justice Ministry issued a legislative memo on the issue, but the proposal generated a coalition crisis and the agreement - pounded out among Likud, Shinui and the National Religious Party - on the wording of the bill eventually fell apart.