Registrars can be very fussy about keeping all religious references out of civil ceremonies. (I've posted on this before.) Even to the extent of forbidding the use of phrases that could be seen as having been drawn from a prayer book even though they make no reference to God.
But last year I attended a civil marriage ceremony and was intrigued to hear the Registrar making all sorts of statements about the nature of marriage -- about the need for couples to love one another, and so on. I found myself thinking "Hang on a minute -- you're imposing a description of what marriage is here. Have the couple asked you to do this? Do they agree with your description? Have you discussed it with them?" I recognised the description as 'broadly Christian' (albeit without any religious reference, of course) so didn't disagree with it per se. The bride was Hindu and the groom atheist, and they didn't seem to feel it inappropriate either, which is just as well. Suppose they had?
But I found myself thinking that surely the whole point of a civil ceremony is that it is stripped back to 'marriage as defined by the law'? Any extraneous stuff doesn't belong there. The Registrar was overstepping her authority.
Sure, it must be possible to deduce an understanding of what marriage is as defined by the law. It prohibits bigamy, for instance, so polygamy is ruled out and marriage is to just one partner until divorce is agreed. (The law permits divorce, so 'marriage to one partner for life' is not presumed, even though I imagine that is most people's intention). The law defines all sorts of rights within a legal partnership. To what extent it defines active responsibilities I don't know, and I'm fairly sure the law doesn't say anything about people's legitimate hopes and aspirations. Maybe there is some stuff about 'reasonable expectations', I don't know.
A civil Registrar can permit family and friends, or the couple themselves, to read poems or make statements about their hopes and aspirations, but that's not the Registrar's job. If a civil Registrar starts importing stuff about 'love' and, unprompted, starts talking about hopes and aspirations then, unless the people forming the legal partnership have specifically asked them to do this, I submit that they're exceeding their authority. OK, they're not bringing religion into it, but they're importing ideas and concepts that come from -- well, where? If they're not pinched from religious cultures, then where from? From popular, secular culture? What authority defines what the popular, secular understanding of marriage is in this highly multicultural society? The British Humanist Association? The National Secular Society? 'East Enders' scriptwriters? Surely, the answer is 'the law, and the law alone' defines the common (secular) denominator. Registrars need to stick to the script.
If the couple want to do their own readings or express their own hopes and aspirations that's fine (as long as they don't sound at all religious, whatever 'religious' means). Or they can then go off and, safely out of the Registrar's sight, express their aspirations in a pagan ceremony, Hindu ceremony, Christian or Muslim ceremony, or a 'do-it-yourself' ceremony -- that's up to them. But the Registrar should stick to what the Registrar is there for -- the legal registration.
I've had similar issues with funeral directors overreaching their authority by suggesting things to families that, as a Christian minister, I disagree with : and then presenting me with a fait accompli and assuming I will be happy to go along with it.
It sometimes feels as if 'we want the religious feelings, but we don't want to really think about it, and we don't trust religious people to help us think about it'. Maybe that lack of trust is deserved, but if so that's sad. And personally I find it frustrating, because there's so much I could offer out of the Christian tradition.