Civil marriage or secular marriage is a marriage which is constituted by a government official and not a religious congregation.
Civil Marriages began becoming recognized by western countries during the 17th century, and nowadays are an acceptable institution almost universally. Every country which maintains a population registration of its residents also has an indication of the people's marital status, and most countries believe that it is their authority to register a married couple, also if they didn't perform a religious ceremony, if the state found the marriage to be legit by the required conditions defined by the state. Certain states, such as Israel condition the registration of married couples in that the marriage would be held in a religious ceremony recognized by the state or that the couple would be considered married in a different country.
In medieval Europe, marriage came under the jurisdiction of canon law, which recognized as a valid marriage one where the parties stated that they took one another as wife and husband, even in absence of any witnesses. This institution was canceled in England with the legislation of the "Lord Hardwicke's Marriage Act" of 1753. This law required an official ceremony being conducted as a condition for the marriage to go into effect, and to registering the ceremony. The ceremony was recognized and registered only if it took place in a church recognized by the state (the Anglican church, the Quakers church or through a Jewish ceremony), and any other form of marriage was proclaimed as abolished. Children whom were born into unions which were not valid under the "Lord Hardwicke's Marriage Act" could not Inherit the property of their parents. Due to historical reasons the law was not applied to Scotland, and until 1940 it was enough in Scotland for a man and a woman to pledge their commitment to each other in front of witnesses, in order to get married. This fact led to the industry of "fast marriages" in towns in the boundary of Scotland, and in particular a town which became well known as such was the town of Gretna Green. In 1863 the demand that the ceremony would take place in a religious form was removed, and the registrar was given the authority to register marriages which were not conducted under a religious ceremony.
Nowadays England permits Civil marriage being held without any religious ceremony, under the "superintendent registrar". Those marriages require a certificate, and at times a license, that testify that the couple is fit for marriage. A short time after they are approved in the superintendent registrar offices, a short ceremony takes place in which the superintendent registrar must attend, the couple and two witnesses. This ceremony takes place according to an official form, and isn't bound to any religious demands whatever.
Many of the European countries had institutions which were parallel to the "marriage of the acceptable sentence". In 1566 the Council of Trent denied from Catholics any form of marriage which is not executed in a religious ceremony in front of a priest and two witnesses.
The protestant pastor and theologian from Geneva, John Calvin, determined in the decree, that in order for a couple to be considered married they must be registered by the state in addition to a ceremony in a church.
In France, with the French Revolution, the religious marriage ceremonies were completely canceled in 1792. The ceremony which became the official one after that in France was the Civil marriage, whereas the religious ceremony was only held as an addition by choice, and was only allowed to be held by couples whom already were married under a Civil marriage ceremony. This custom spread throughout Europe by Napoleon, which lead the Napoleonic code in the territories which he conquered.
In Germany the Napoleonic code was valid in the territories which were conquered by Napoleon. With the fall of Napoleon, the custom of Civil marriage began to be cancelled, and during a certain period of time there were certain countries in Germany in which it was customary to have Civil marriage and certain countries in which it was not. In 1875, with the union of Germany as one kingdom, Otto von Bismarck legislated the "civil marriage law" (Zivilehe). Since the legislation of the law, the marriages which are recognized in Germany are the civil marriages, and the religious ceremony is done only if chosen to, and is conducted only after the couple gets first married under a Civil marriage.
In many of the states in the United States it is possible to get married under a civil marriage. Such a wedding cermonies are held in front of a civil local authority, such as the mayor, a judge, or any other public official. These ceremonies can include mentioning of god but the most do not tend to have any relation to any specific religion. Many of these ceremonies take place in the town hall or in the local court. As part of those ceremonies, religion people, such as a Rabbi, Pastor, or Qadi is granted an authorization from the state to conduct marriage, and so it is possible to unify the religious ceremony with the civil ceremony.
In many countries such as France, Spain, Germany, Turkey, Argentina and Russia, there is an obligation to get married in a civil ceremony, and only later, whomever chooses to can get married in a religious ceremony, and its significance is only a religious recognition in the marriage, because the recognition of the state is given without dependence of a religious ceremony.
In Israel, the marriage are recognized only if conducted in a religious ceremony (or conducted in a different country), and the state is not allowed to create the legal position, but only to recognize it and register it in the Civil registry.
Since 2001 five countries in the world recognize marriages between Same-sex couples, as a being in a legal equal position to other married couples: Holland, Belgium, Spain, Canada and South Africa. Number of countries, among them Israel, Aruba, and the Netherlands Antilles recognize Same-sex marriages which were conducted and registered in a different country.
In the United States, Massachusetts is the only state which recognizes Same-sex marriages being legal equal position to other married couples. In 24 countries in the world, and several of the states in the United States, the position which is recognized is that which was originally recognized first in Denmark in 1989 which is called "Civil Union" or "Registered Partnership" which gives equal rights and obligations which are similar to the marriage institution, to same-sex couples, but without officially calling this institution a "marriage".
Those developments awakened a anti reaction, in particular in the United States. In most of the states in the United States there exists legal settlements which disapprove a recognition in Same-sex marriages that were conducted outside of the state. This legislation is called Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA).
This article is based on "Civil marriage" from the free encyclopedia Wikipedia (http://en.wikipedia.org). It is licensed under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation Licencse. In the Wikipedia you can find a list of the authors by visiting the following address: http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Civil+marriage&action=history