Civil wedding PHOTO: ©istockphoto.com/iofoto

Let's be civil

Each year, more than 11,000 people say ‘I do’ in courthouse ceremonies

By Sara Cardine 06/01/2011

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On a recent Thursday, 18 couples walked through the door of the Beverly Hills Municipal Courthouse on a mission to marry. They presented their marriage licenses and, upon paying a service fee of $25, made their way to a small archway where a deputy commissioner of marriage would oversee affairs. After partaking in a brief legal ceremony, these 18 couples joined the ranks of many thousands of people throughout Los Angeles County who opt for civil ceremonies over church weddings or other flashy affairs. 
 
Los Angeles County residents who seek civil ceremonies can choose from among seven locations that offer regular ceremonies. Six of those are satellite offices, which perform civil nuptials one day a week by appointment. The seventh, the Los Angeles Registrar-Recorder/County Clerk headquarters in the city of Norwalk, takes appointments Monday through Friday from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. 
 
“It’s the best deal in town,” said Robert Ringler, who has presided over civil courthouse weddings for the past 10 years on a volunteer basis as a deputy commissioner of marriage. “You never know who’s going to come through the door. I’ve seen everything under the sun.” 
 
When Ringler isn’t officiating at civil ceremonies, he operates his own ceremony consulting business, Bel-Air Wedding Ceremonies, which handles the licensing process and helps couples create truly personal vows and wedding experiences.
 
Though most weddings are handled privately, 11,321 civil ceremonies were registered through the county office last year alone, according to Division Manager Portia Sanders. As of April 1 of this year, 3,028 couples have taken the plunge in a municipal setting. Traditionally, civil ceremonies were so named because they contained no religious elements and catered to cross-cultural couples and those who didn’t want to get married in a church. They carry the same legal weight no matter where they’re held, however. “A marriage ceremony is a marriage ceremony, whether you have it at a church or here with us,” Sanders said. 
 
Among those couples who sought civil ceremonies in Beverly Hills last Thursday, several had the opportunity to be wed by Ringler, who does his best to bring lightness and heart to even the basic civil ceremonies. Since he started his business in 1982, Ringler has officiated thousands of public and private wedding ceremonies. His first ceremony took place on a cliff face at Mt. Baldy, and since then he’s made an effort to bring an added element of humanity to the civil ceremonies he officiates.
 
Most of Ringler’s courthouse couples have foregone elaborate wedding rituals in favor of the economic practicality of a somewhat bare exchanging of vows. Some want to marry so they are eligible for faculty housing, while some couples have other reasons of a legal nature or are planning to have a bigger ceremony later but need to get married now. 
 
Many come with their own children, and some grooms or brides have walked down the aisle at least once before. On occasion, Ringler reaches into his own bag of tricks — a file of copyrighted vows he’s penned over the years to cover a wide range of situations and scenarios that may apply — in order to make the ceremony more personalized.  He often strays from the template to include details that are relevant to a specific couple. After a while, it becomes a bit of an art form.
 
“When you come into a setting like that, I don’t think your expectation is very high,” Ringler said, describing himself as a “passionate officiate.” 
 
“I’m just making whatever’s on the page come to life and have feeling,” he added.

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