Legal Implications of Church Marriages in Nigeria

Marriages

Love they say is a beautiful thing. When two people are in love and want to spend the rest of their lives together, they usually decide to get married. 

Across cultures, religions, languages and continents, marriage is perceived as something beautiful and a blessing. In some cultures, parents betroth their children at very young ages while others marry them off once they hit marriageable age.

For the sake of this article, we will only focus on church marriages in Nigeria and their legal implications.

What is Marriage?

Marriage is a formal union and social and legal contract between two individuals that unites their lives legally, economically, and emotionally. The contractual marriage agreement usually implies that the couple has legal obligations to each other throughout their lives or until they decide to divorce. Being married also gives legitimacy to sexual relations within the marriage. Traditionally, marriage is often viewed as having a key role in the preservation of morals and civilization

Laws Guiding Marriage in Nigeria

Celebration of Marriage

There are a number of ways marriage can be celebrated in Nigeria. It could be done Traditionally/Customary or Statutorily/Church. Either or are recognised under Nigerian law and most couples in Nigeria celebrate both. 

Marriages

In Nigeria today, a lot of couples would rather celebrate both Traditional and Statutory Marriage. This enables them to be covered both Traditionally under their Native Laws and Customs which is recognised under Nigerian Law and Statutorily under the Marriage Act. 

Customary Marriages

Customary marriages are provided for under Section 35 of the Marriage Act and it states;

“Any person who is married under this Act, or whose marriage is declared by this Act to be valid, shall be incapable, during the continuance of such marriage, of contracting a valid marriage under customary law; but, save as aforesaid, nothing in this Act contained shall affect the validity of any marriage contracted under or in accordance with any customary law, or in any manner apply to marriages so contracted.”

This means that if a person is validly married under the Marriage Act (Statutory or Court Marriage) then that person cannot validly marry another person under customary law but except in this situation mentioned, customary marriages are valid and binding as long as it is performed in accordance with whatever customary law the couple decide to be married under.

Church Marriages

Section 21 of the Marriage Act states that;

Marriage may be celebrated in any licensed place of worship by any recognised minister of the church, denomination or body to which such place of worship belongs, and according to the rites or usages of marriage observed in such church, denomination or body:
Proviso as to times and witnesses
Provided that the marriage be celebrated with open doors between the hours of eight o’clock in the forenoon and six o’clock in the afternoon, and in the presence of two or more witnesses besides the officiating minister.

This means that Church Marriages are marriages are to be celebrated in a church properly licensed under the Marriage Act and by a Priest/ Pastor/ Minister licensed to perform such Act and according to the rites of marriage recognised in that church, denomination or body.

Time

The proviso under Section 21 of the Act made mention of the time when marriages can be conducted. It must be done ‘with open doors‘ (public) between the hours of 8:00 am and 6:00 pm in the presence of two or more witnesses aside from the minister, priest or pastor performing the marriage rites.

Licensed Place of Worship

It should be noted that Statutory Marriage (Court Marriage) can be and is celebrated in churches and such marriage celebration has the same effect as the one celebrated in the registry by the registrar. The condition being that the church in which such marriage is celebrated is a licensed place of worship and the person conducting the marriage is an authorised minister of the church.

Some churches are licensed by the government to celebrate marriages after following certain procedures and once those procedures are followed, marriages can be celebrated in the church. The church will issue to the couple a marriage certificate which is the same as the one that is issued by the registry. The marriage celebrated in the above mentioned way is also a valid Statutory Marriage and has the same legal implication as one celebrated in the Registry.

A Statutory Marriage celebrated in a licensed place of worship (church) must be conducted by a recognized minister of that church else the marriage may be null and void. Simply put, if church ABC is a licensed to celebrate marriages, and a minister in church XYZ conducts a marriage in church ABC, that marriage may be invalid as it must be a recognized minister in church ABC that must conduct the marriage.

It should be noted that not all churches are licensed by the government to celebrate or conduct marriages and any marriage conducted in such unlicensed church is unknown to Nigerian laws and can never be deemed to be a statutory marriage. Some of such unlicensed churches issue their own certificate as proof of marriage as such church cannot issue a government certificate like the licensed churches.

No matter how nice or official-looking the certificate issued by an unlicensed church is and irrespective of how well the marriage is conducted in an unlicensed church, such marriage is unknown to law and has no legal backing at all. The said marriage at best will be described as a mere church blessing which in no way have the advantages a statutory marriage conducted in the registry or at a licensed church as.

Notice of Marriage

Section 7 of the Marriage Act provides that;

“Whenever any persons desire to marry, one of the parties to the intended marriage shall sign and give to the registrar of the district in which the marriage is intended to take place a notice as in Form A in the First Schedule.”

The notice of marriage is to be entered in the marriage notice book by the Registrar and copies such notice is to be placed on his door and publish or exposed until he grants them a certificate or three months have elapsed. Section 10 of the Marriage Act.

Invalid Marriages

Section 33 of the Marriage Act provides for situations where a marriage will be deemed invalid;

  • Where either of the party to be married are already married to people other than the person they are to be married to under the Act.

A marriage shall be null and void where;

  • They willfully and knowingly agree to be married in a place that is not a licensed place of worship to perform marriage rites.
  • Agree to be married under false names.
  • Where the parties are married without the Registrars certificate of notice or license duly given under Section 13 of the Act.
  • Where the parties are married by a person not being a recognised minister of some religious denomination or body or a registrar of marriages.

Are You Legally Married Under Nigerian Law?

Conclusion

Conclusively, intending couples should be inquisitive enough to know if the church they want their marriage celebrated in is registered and this can be known by inquiring at the marriage registry around them. 

Written by E.I Onanuga Esq (OLOJUMETA)

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