Civil marriage or secular marriage is a marriage which is performed by a government official and not a religious organization.
Nowadays England permits civil marriages without any religious ceremony, under the "superintendent registrar". Those marriages require a certificate, and at times a license, that testify that the couple is fit for marriage. A short time after they are approved in the superintendent registrar offices, a short ceremony takes place in which the superintendent registrar, the couple and two witnesses must attend. This ceremony takes place according to an official form, and isn't bound to any religious demands whatever.
Many European countries had institutions which were parallel to the "marriage of the acceptable sentence". In 1566 was published the edict of the Council of Trent which denied Catholics any form of marriage which is not executed in a religious ceremony in front of a priest and two witnesses.
The protestant pastor and theologian from Geneva, John Calvin, determined in the decree that, in order for a couple to be considered married, they must be registered by the state in addition to a ceremony in a church.
In 1792, with the French Revolution, religious marriage ceremonies in France were completely invalidated in favor of civil marriage. Religious ceremonies could be held as well, but only by couples who were already married under a civil ceremony. Napoleon later spread this custom throughout most of Europe.
In Germany, the Napoleonic code was valid only in the territories which were conquered by Napoleon. With the fall of his empire, the custom of civil marriage in Germany began to die out, and for a period of time there were certain territories in which it was customary to have a civil marriage and certain territories in which it was not. With the union of Germany as one kingdom in 1875, Otto von Bismarck legislated the "civil marriage law" (see also: Kulturkampf). Since the enactment of the law, the only marriages which are recognized in Germany are civil marriages. Religious ceremonies are performed at the couple's discretion. Until Dec. 31, 2008, religious marriages may not be performed until the couple is first married under a civil ceremony.
In many countries such as France, Spain, Germany, Turkey, Argentina and Russia, there is an obligation to get married in a civil ceremony. Later, couples can get married in a religious ceremony. Its significance, however, is only religious recognition of the marriage, because the recognition of the state is given regardless.
In Israel, the marriage is recognized only if conducted in a religious ceremony (or conducted in a different country), and the state is not allowed to create the legal position, but only to recognize it and register it in the civil registry.
Only two states in the U.S., Massachusetts and California, recognize same-sex unions as legal marriages. In 24 countries worldwide, and several other states within the US, a same-sex couple can be legally partnered in a civil union or registered partnership. These partnerships, first recognized in Denmark in 1989 are afforded rights and obligations similar to those afforded by a marriage, though many people do not regard them in the same light as a marriage.
In the United States, a piece of legislation called The Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) defines marriage at the federal level in purely heterosexual terms. Additionally, many states will not recognize and afforded a same-sex couple in a civil union the same rights and responsibilities as a married opposite-sex couple.