The Mormon bureaucrat in Utah changing marriage in Israel
Amelia Powers Gardner is a local Utah official laser-set on reducing bureaucratic inefficiency. So how did she become a key player in Israeli public affairs?
Amelia Powers Gardner was a low-level elected official whose mission was to make government processes more efficient and less bureaucratic for the 665,000 citizens of Utah County, Utah. So she’s as surprised as anyone that she became something of a revolutionary in Israeli public affairs.
What she viewed as a simple policy change — moving the county’s marriage licensing online — has reverberated around the world, resulting in hundreds of weddings as far away as Russia and raising legal questions that have reached the Israeli Supreme Court. And it happened, essentially, by accident.
“I didn’t have a really defined purpose,” Gardner, who has worked as a management consultant and an engineer, told Jewish Insider of her decision to run for county clerk in 2018. “I started by diving in: What processes are broken? What processes are inconvenient for our citizens, and how can we fix that?”
Gardner, now county commissioner, ended up fixing things for citizens well beyond the borders of Utah County, whose largest city is Provo. Her first project was to allow for totally virtual wedding licensing, a process she began in 2018 and which finally went live in January 2020.
Two months later, the world shut down with the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic. Couples who planned to wed in spring 2020 were unable to get the requisite marriage licenses because municipal offices were closed. Gardner was soon getting calls from couples all over the country and from government offices as high up as that of New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, urging her to issue licenses outside her county.
“Finally, in around April, maybe early May at the latest, I just thought, ‘This is crazy. It has been two months. This is not two weeks to flatten the curve,’” Gardner recalled. “That’s when we opened it up to citizens beyond our borders of our state and our county, because the idea that a government office being closed meant that people couldn’t perform life or religious ceremonies was so unconscionable to me that I decided that, hey, you know what, we’re gonna offer this service to anyone who wants it.”
Israelis, it turns out, desperately wanted that combination of American don’t-tread-on-me libertarianism and technological ease.
There is no civil marriage in Israel because marriage rules are controlled by the country’s religious authorities. So to get married, Jews must go through Israel’s Chief Rabbinate. For decades, Israeli Jews who wanted to get married on their own terms — either because they did not want to abide by the religious guidelines of the Chief Rabbinate, or could not have a legally recognized wedding because they are gay, or just on principle — would have to leave the country. Many went to nearby Cyprus, creating an entire cottage industry of wedding tourism. Some have even chartered boats to go just far enough off Israel’s coast to exchange vows in international waters.
Now, all they have to do is go online to Utah County’s marriage license portal.
Word spread organically, first in the U.S. and then around the world. Gardner guesses that Israelis first learned of her county through a Facebook group for international long-distance couples. Israelis quickly began using the county’s services. But inadvertently, the county was entering a political minefield.
“At that time, we weren’t aware of the marriage laws in Israel and the lack of civil marriage, and how the Rabbinate controlled it,” Gardner noted. “That all was brought to our attention probably a few months later.”
Israel’s Interior Ministry said it would not recognize the hundreds of weddings performed through the virtual system. But this month, the government lost its court battle against the couples. Israel’s Supreme Court — currently mired in a monthslong political battle as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu seeks to curtail its power — ruled unanimously that the government must recognize the marriages of the more than 1,000 Israeli couples who have used the virtual service.
“I don’t think the political debate has ever really been our purpose. But recognizing that government stands in the way of people, the way they live their lives and their life decisions — that is something that I feel very strongly shouldn’t happen,” said Gardner. The matter feels personal to her. She is a member of the Mormon Church, which, she pointed out, was persecuted for a long time by the American government.
“This idea that the government would interfere with religious ceremonies, or with the way that people live their lives — maybe it’s in my DNA, because that’s my ancestry, but it didn’t sit well with me,” she explained. “I was very happy that we could find a way for people to be able to legitimize their families. I feel that the family is the basic unit of society, and the fact that government would interfere with people creating families, forming families, solemnizing families, was very disturbing to me.”
Israel isn’t the only geopolitical hotspot Gardner has waded into. She recently learned of a lesbian couple in which one woman was Ukrainian and one was Russian, and they wanted to go to Europe together to flee the war. But they couldn’t wed in Russia or Ukraine, where gay marriage remains illegal — yet they couldn’t both get refugee status unless they were married. So they got married via Utah County’s system, and their best friend, sobbing, found Gardner at a conference to thank her.
Utah County remains the only county in the U.S. to offer virtual wedding licenses. Gardner isn’t involved with the marriage system anymore — her county clerk successor handles it, and he has vowed to stick with the virtual portal — but she still gets inquiries from other municipalities asking to license her software.
“The problem is, we built it ourselves,” she told JI, so the county can’t easily share it. But a tech startup is working to build out the technology so that other places can follow Utah County’s lead.
Gardner’s attention is already focused elsewhere: Next up is the health department, and digitizing systems to apply for food assistance.
Her engineering training and business-consultant acumen can’t sit dormant for too long.