Although marriage is a legal contract recognized by government, it's also a religious institution defined by faith denominations. The legal aspect of marriage conveys a variety of privileges, benefits and rights to both partners, while the spiritual aspect only recognizes the union in terms of a religion's beliefs. These two faces of marriage have corresponding ceremonies: civil ceremonies performed by a government official and church weddings performed by a religious officiant.
Couples must present a license to get married legally. Their marriage in a civil ceremony then becomes legal when the officiant signs the marriage certificate. The law does not require a license for church marriages because of their sacramental nature. However, without a marriage license, couples wed in a church ceremony aren't legally married even if they do meet the criteria set by their faith. When those reciting vows in a church, synagogue or other holy site present a marriage license, their ceremony becomes both religious and civil, and their marriage gains legal recognition after the officiating clergy signs the marriage certificate.
Vows remain the heart of a wedding, whether they're said in a civil ceremony or a house of worship. Couples have more flexibility in personalizing their vows when they marry outside of a church. Some religions frown upon any deviation from traditional, standard vows that acknowledge their belief in a Higher Being. Couples marrying in The Episcopal Church, for example, begin their vows with the words, "In the Name of God." Vows recited at civil weddings contain no religious references.
The person presiding over a civil wedding ceremony holds a government position authorized by state law to officiate. For example, the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania allows mayors, justices of the peace and judges to marry couples who have obtained a marriage license. On the other hand, faith organizations limit those who can preside over a marriage conducted according to their laws and traditions to a minister, priest, rabbi or other ordained church leader.
Civil weddings take place in a non-religious setting such as a courthouse, resort or family home. They tend to be simpler, less expensive affairs than church weddings, especially when held at a city hall or courthouse. Civil-ceremony couples invest less time and preparation than their church-wedding counterparts and often only invite their witnesses. Lack of traditions such as a ring bearer, flower girl and recessional make civil ceremonies briefer than church weddings or weddings officiated by a member of the clergy in a non-religious setting. Although less formal attire is the norm, brides can wear a wedding dress and grooms can sport a tuxedo instead of a suit and tie for their civil ceremony.