Civil Ceremony Basics


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

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 ceremonies are increasingly more common and not the headache they were once considered!)
  • Your ideal ceremony is more creative than clergy will allow. For example, maybe 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., offiially 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 catain 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 readings and traditions you want to include.

How do 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.


1. Keep it simple. Choose an all-in-one venue. Some sites, such as historic homes, hotels, and country clubs, have the space to let you hold your ceremony, cocktail hour, and reception all in one location. This makes transportation a snap–and no lost guests.

2. Honor your relatives. Give close family members and friends that you couldn’t include in the wedding party a job for the ceremony. Have them be a reader, help you with the programs, or give a blessing after you’ve said your vows.

3. Incorporate nature. Instead of bringing in extra lighting and floral arrangements, take advantage of your surroundings by using outdoor elements. Think seashells for a beach ceremony or fall leaves for an autumn wedding.

4. Consider your transitions. Come up with a plan for handling the in-between times. If your ceremony and reception are taking place at one venue, transition guests with an exit strategy. One idea: before the ceremony, ask attendants or ushers to hand each guest a candle on the way into the ceremony, then have them give guests a handful of rose petals to toss after the ceremony.

5. Beat the heat. If you’re planning an outdoor wedding in a warm climate, make sure that your guests are taken care of. Get double-duty wedding programs shaped like fans; hand each guest a glass of sparking water at the entrance of the ceremony space; and provide parasols to help block the sun.