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Ceremony: Civil Ceremony Basics

Don't want a religious wedding? Get married in civil style. Here's everything you need to know.

Photo: Devonshire Photography

And you thought a civil ceremony meant high-tailing it to City Hall or Vegas! You could tie the knot either of those ways, but more and more couples today are choosing to have secular ceremonies in traditional ways -- before their nearest and dearest, at a serene setting like on the beach or in a garden, or at their fabulous reception site.

Why Have a Civil Ceremony?

Couples who opt for civil ceremonies usually fall into one of the following groups:

  • Neither person is religious or subscribes to an organized religion, or they feel uncomfortable with the idea of a religious ceremony.

  • The bride and groom have religion come from different religious backgrounds, so they choose the civil route to avoid potential problems with interfaith ceremonies. (But know that interfaith marriages are increasingly common and not the headache they once were considered.)

  • Your ideal ceremony is more creative than clergy will allow (for example, you want secular poems and prose read; you want rock songs for your processional and recessional; or you want to include Native American and Buddhist rituals).

Who Officiates

Your officiant must be able to legally perform your wedding (i.e., officially sign your marriage license). A justice of the peace is one choice, but a judge, magistrate, county or court clerk, mayor, or notary public can also officiate. (Contrary to popular belief, a cruise-ship captain cannot automatically officiate a wedding; he must hold one of the above civil titles.) You can also have a secular ceremony performed by a licensed member of a group like the Ethical Humanist Society -- he or she will not "bless" your wedding in a traditional sense, but will most likely be open to any readings and traditions you want to include.

How They Differ

Most civil ceremonies bypass Christian traditions like communion or Jewish traditions like the seven blessings. Still, your officiant may let you include some religious rituals to make your families happy. Otherwise, a secular ceremony has the same basic structure as a religious one: procession, call to order/opening remarks, vows, ring exchange and other unity gestures, pronouncement ("I now pronounce you husband and wife"), kiss, closing remarks, and recession. You can include special readings and musical selections if you like, or keep it short and sweet.

Looking to go the religious route? Read up on:

-- The Knot

See More: Wedding Ceremony + Wedding Vow Ideas