A civil marriage is performed by a government official and recognized as a legal ceremony by the government. It is contrasted to a religious marriage, where a representative of a religious group presides. Civil marriage is also different than obtaining a license to marry and it may differ from secular marriage, which is performed by any individual, religious or not, with the legal permission from a state to officiate at a wedding ceremony. In some regions, people can become marriage officiators by application over the Internet, and can then preside at weddings and legally sign any documentation assuring that a marriage has taken place.
Diverse rules govern the civil marriage in individual regions. In some countries, people are required to undergo a brief civil ceremony before any type of religious ceremony. Once the civil marriage is performed, it’s usually not necessary to have any other form of ceremony, but if a couple wants religious recognition of the marriage, they would have a second wedding at a church, mosque, temple or elsewhere with a representative of their religion presiding.
In other regions, a religious ceremony has to take place before a civil marriage ceremony. The state-recognized marriage serves as a way to register the marriage. In places like the US, couples have the option of a civil marriage, or a religious or secular one. Most couples must obtain a license prior to the marriage ceremony so that it will be recognized as legal, but then can choose who will officiate. The marriage is legally recognized after the ceremony takes place and the requisite documents are filed.
The traditional civil marriage ceremony is held in a public place like a courthouse. Judges or justices of the peace are the most common officiants. Some of these government representatives, since they’re empowered by the state to perform marriages, do travel and will marry couples at the location of their choice. On the other hand, most often the marriages occur in city or town buildings and are simple and short.
There’s been tension on the issue of what constitutes marriage, and these arguments still resonate. Organizations like the Catholic Church don’t recognize civil marriage and insist couples must be married by the church, thus receiving the sacrament of marriage. Today, one of the biggest issues in places like the US is who has legal right to marry. In a few states, civil and/or religious weddings take place between same sex couples, but these marriages aren’t recognized by other states, and the majority of states forbid these marriages completely. Many religious groups also don’t recognize these unions.
Some remote areas of the world have no form of registry or civil marriage. Couples wishing to get married simply declare their intentions or go through culturally traditional wedding ceremonies. Larger governments tend to discourage this and want official records for the purposes of census and for things like taxation.