Culture minister stokes controversy with lifelong marriage proposal

The Christian Democrat Culture Minister Václav Jehlička has stoked controversy by suggesting an amendment to the countries marriage code that would allow for what appear to be binding religious marriages with no option of divorce.

At first glance, the proposals made by the culture minister Václav Jehlička to the Czech Justice Ministry appear to suggest that religious marriages could be undertaken in which the couple commits to an irreversible lifelong union, irrespective of circumstances. This suggestion immediately led the most socially conservative Czech political party the Christian Democrats to disavow its own minister’s recommendation, stating that this was not something that the party had agreed upon as part of its platform. Meanwhile, the Justice Ministry has stated that it does not believe that this proposal is something that will be seriously considered.

However, Jan Cieslar, a spokesperson for minister Jehlička insists that this proposal is being overblown by the media and is just one of a large number of entirely reasonable measures that his boss has put forward:

“This proposal came at a time when it appeared that the Justice Ministry was seriously considering the abolition of religious marriages. From our perspective, this would represent a step backwards because it was the communists that first abolished this practice. So in the context of this seeming change, we moved to enable people of faith to have an alternative to civil marriages – the kind that would enable them to have a kind of higher level agreement, which would be entirely voluntary and no-one, would be forced to take part in it.”

Václav Jehlička,  photo: CTK
Since the end of communist times, couples have been able to marry in church weddings, which are recognized under Czech law, but these weddings are no more binding than simple civil ceremonies – a divorce can be obtained fairly easily by one side seeking dissolution of the arrangement. The new proposals would make divorce much harder, and give a divorce judge the power to impose a separation, rather than a divorce. I asked Mr Cieslar to comment on the strong reaction from some quarters to this kind of proposal – was it not in fact a kind of Talibanisation of Czech law, with something akin to a Sharia court determining whether a dysfunctional marriage should or should not be discontinued?

“I think that that is completely over the top and taken out of context. It was nothing more than a reaction to the apparent end of church weddings. You used the word Talibanisation, when in fact I think that abolishing religious weddings would be a kind of reverse Talibanisation.”

Proponents of the scheme point to similar arrangements in the US states of Louisiana and Arkansas (known as covenant marriages) and say that the party is simply trying to preserve the sanctity of marriage. But ultimately, in a wider context, this may be viewed by some as a singular attempt by the Christian Democrats, hovering dangerously close to falling below the 5 percent threshold to gain parliamentary representation, of rallying a clearly dwindling base of voters in a largely socially liberal country.