In BC, the solemnization of marriage is governed by the Marriage Act, as interpreted by the Chief Executive Officer of Vital Statistics. The Act provides for three ways that a couple can get married:
- in a religious ceremony performed by a representative of a recognized religious body,
- in a civil ceremony performed by a government-appointed marriage commissioner or
- in a ceremony performed in accordance with the rites and ceremonies of a treaty First Nation or Doukhobor community, provided either of the couple being wed belong to one of those communities.
The Act defines a religious body as “any church, or any religious denomination, sect, congregation or society” and gives religious bodies the freedom to appoint their own religious representatives. The Act and accompanying policy are otherwise silent on the definition of a religion. The CEO of Vital Statistics effectively has the ultimate authority in deciding the legitimacy of any individual religion and does so through a questionnaire based, in part, on requirements in Section 3 of the Act. These requirements set out that religious representatives must be ordained "according to the rites and usages of the religious body", reside in BC and that the religious body "is sufficiently well established."
The Register of Religious Representatives
The Act requires Vital Statistics to keep a register showing:
- the name of every religious representative registered,
- the name of the religious body to which the religious representative belongs, and
- the date of the religious representative's registration.
In fall 2016, the BC Humanist Association asked informally for a list of registered organizations and the number of representatives registered under each. Vital Statistics responded - as it had to one individual before - that it doesn't "maintain a list, however all churches in BC are recognized churches." We followed up with a Freedom of Information request in February 2017, which we received on March 6, 2017. Those results can be viewed here.
The list includes 6880 representatives from 455 organizations. The overwhelming majority - 71% of the organizations and 90% of the representatives - are from various Christian churches. There are also representatives from other major traditional religions, including Sikhism, Baha'i, Islam and Hinduism. There are also ten Spiritualist churches with 70 representatives and two Wiccan groups with 13 representatives. Another handful of organizations represent various other New Age or spiritual theistic groups, such as Eckanar, the Sacred Circle of the Great Mystery Shamanic Society, the Movement of Spiritual Inner Awareness, Tenrikyo and Arya Samaj.
Ten Buddhist organizations have 29 representatives. While some branches of Buddhism have a lot of the characteristics of a traditional Western religion, most don't have a theological component and are more akin to a philosophy. Zen Buddhism specifically focuses on meditation and is non-theistic. Three Zen Buddhist societies are registered with Vital Statistics.
Further, the Church of Scientology is recognized and has eight representatives. Scientology is not recognized as a religious charitable organization by the Canada Revenue Agency.
Several of the remaining groups - notably Canadian International Metaphysical Ministry (see below), the Canadian Unitarian Council and the Church of Truth Community of Conscious Living - have no core dogma and are welcoming to atheists.
Religious representatives registered under the Act are “duly authorized to solemnize marriage according to the rites and usages of the religious body to which the person belongs.” The only other restrictions are that marriages be witnessed by two people and done in public.
In practice, however, there seems to be little oversight of the ceremonies performed by religious representatives beyond the necessary paperwork being completed. Just in Metro Vancouver, a quick Google search results in various celebrants and officiants willing to perform marriages as a commercial, rather than religious, service to the community. For example, one celebrant claims to be registered as an “interfaith religious officiant” who offers “ceremony packages” and markets herself in secular language.
Many celebrants in BC are registered under the Canadian International Metaphysical Ministry (CIMM). CIMM requires its minister to complete online courses from a metaphysical university like the Celebrant Foundation & Institute (whose tuition is $2500 USD).
Initially rejected by Vital Statistics, CIMM became a recognized religious body following some amendments to its constitution. Its religion is metaphysics, which involves a belief in an interconnected energy or spirituality outside the body and no dogma or collective worship.
CIMM states on its website that its purpose is to register "qualified Metaphysical Ministers to perform weddings in British Columbia, Alberta, Ontario & Quebec." According to the results of the Freedom of Information request, CIMM has 97 registered celebrants in BC. These celebrants then offer and promote their services and CIMM seeks to ensure that some level of religiosity is incorporated into their marriage ceremonies.
Many of the top results for local celebrants are likely to be CIMM ministers. To many outside observers the language on their websites is often more secular or spiritual than religious.
Many of these celebrants are willing to perform any form of marriage a couple requests, including secular ceremonies. Often these websites market exclusively in secular language. One example is Young, Hip & Married, who offer celebrants in BC, Alberta, Ontario and California but doesn't seem to disclose its religion anywhere.
Other celebrants also provide a host of wedding planning services or work in conjunction with a public facility.
The Chapel Group operates the wedding venues in Queen Elizabeth Park, Stanley Park and Minoru Park. The first two properties are owned by the Vancouver Parks Board and the latter by the City of Richmond. In these venues, evangelical ministers offer their services as the in-house officiants.
This arrangement begs the question: If the faith of these ministers is so broad as to recognize any marriage ceremony and to operate as a business, how can it be called religious for the purposes of the Act? Alternatively, if the organization is truly religious then there are likely ceremonies that the ministers would refuse. By providing an exclusive contract to a religious organization, particularly one that discriminates in its provision of service, the municipal government would arguably be in conflict with its duty of equality and religious neutrality.
The latitude many officiants have taken with their authority seemingly contradicts the envisioned purpose of the Act, which is surely to allow religious groups to perform religious ceremonies for their own congregants. Instead, Vital Statistics is seemingly giving religious representatives wide freedom to perform any kind of ceremony - religious or secular - for any members of the public.
Since 1982, couples in BC may also have a civil ceremony performed by a marriage commissioner. Marriage commissioners are appointed by the government and are subject to a number of restrictions.
- They are limited to a ten year term.
- There are a finite number of positions available, determined by local marriage demand.
- They are required to use specific language in their ceremonies that is set out in the Act.
- They must be retired.
- They are not authorized to provide planning or consultation services.
- The fees they can charge for their services are fixed by regulation.
- They must live in the community where they perform marriage ceremonies.
- They cannot advertise or otherwise promote their services.
- They must report all revenues monthly to vital statistics.
- They must have “no involvement in any activity that may cause actual or perceived conflict of interest.”
None of these requirements exist for religious representatives. There are generally few or no vacancies (there were ten rural appointments listed in March 2017). Further, as they are effectively civil servants, marriage commissioners must perform all legal ceremonies, even for couples that might violate the conscience of the commissioner.
There are approximately 370 marriage commissioners across BC according to Vital Statistics.
Treaty First Nations and Doukhobors
Finally, the Act also grants Doukhobors and treaty First Nations to solemnize marriages of their own members according to their own rites and ceremonies.
Updates: March 17, 2017