Religious leaders, both Muslims and Christians, have reacted with panic to the list of places allowed to wed people.
Churches and religious organisations are on their toes over a recently published list of places gazetted to hold weddings.
The Uganda Registration Services Bureau (URSB) followed the published list in Sunday Vision, followed by a meeting on Tuesday with religious leaders and various registrars at Hotel Africana, to sensitise them on the legal requirements surrounding the solemnisation of marriages.
The acting Registrar General, Kyomuhendo Bisereko, said the aim was to improve compliance with the law and record keeping in regards to registration of marriages.
The requirements have Muslims and some Christians drawing the battle lines over the issue, with calls for the laws on marriage to be changed.
Not all churches and mosques can conduct weddings, but many assume that it is okay because God ordained their priests to carry out sacraments for their flock. As far as some of them are concerned, marriage is a religious sacrament, a rite that is only subject to rules prescribed in holy laws like the Koran or the Bible.
But an assistant registrar at the URSB says that marriage is an affair of the Government, not just the couple or the religious body. The laws under which marriages can be conducted are: The Marriage and Divorce Act, The Marriage and Divorce of Mohammedan Act, The Customary Marriages Act plus The Hindu Marriage and Divorce Act.
These laws, critics argue, were put together during the colonial times in a bid to cater for the religious and cultural beliefs of all the people represented in Uganda at the time and now need to be updated.
Dr. Joseph Serwadda, the presiding apostle of the Born-Again Faith in Uganda, notes that the state in 1904 assumed that the civil union would automatically cover Christian unions, which he says is erroneous. To prove this point, two years later, Serwadda notes, a separate law to govern Marriage and Divorce issues for Mohammedans had to be put in place because their religious rites 'depend heavily on imported Arab culture... totally foreign to English norms'.
"A change in the law was inevitable when Hindus of the Virashaiva, Lingayat, Brahma, Prarathana and Arya Samaj orders could not see their faith expressed in the existing arrangement, giving way to the Hindu Marriage & Divorce Act, September 1, 1961. Later, traditionalists found reason to ask for a reform, birthing the Customary Marriage Registration Act on October 1, 1973. Laws are a reflection of the time and needs of their environs, and this is what must happen now for Christians, in order to reflect a spiritual touch in effecting the union between a man and wife."
Serwadda says that holy matrimony has a spiritual significance that outweighs the jurisdiction of the state.
"Christians and Muslims agree that once a union is blessed in a place of worship, the legal dissatisfaction notwithstanding, marriage has happened! What remains is the registration, for the obvious reasons of data and revenue. Otherwise, we would be abetting cohabitation."
Registration services in Uganda had taken a back seat for many years, with the Government basically relying on the vigilance of the people and individual organisations to know exactly how many people were born, got married or died. For marriages, where there is no reporting, the marriages essentially exist in a vacuum until the state is notified. The registry only had automatic information on marriages carried out under civil marriage because they take place within and at government offices. In other words, if you wanted to marry a woman who had ever been married at an obscure church in another district, it is quite possible that you will never know, unless someone appears and tries to stop the wedding. Many couples have exploited these loopholes to effect divorces and get married two or more times.
According to the Deputy Attorney General, Fred Ruhindi, the Registrar General's Office was made autonomous to develop the capacity to properly regulate and enforce the civil registration systems in the country. The URSB, officially made independent by an act of law in 2000, has only recently stepped up its visibility with moves to improve registration services around the country.
As it was recently published, the list of churches gazetted to carry out marriages is incomplete, with whole districts left out. Some of it is based on handwritten lists prepared decades ago that have only recently been computerised, although there does not appear to be a comprehensive bank. When a certificate is sent to the bureau for verification, it is against this list that checks are made, which leaves a lot of room for distress to the couples whose marriages are declared null and void.
Acknowledging this loophole, the Assistant Registrar, Anthony Oyuko Ojok, said couples are given chance to get evidence of their house of worship's licence. A copy of the gazette notice in the Uganda Gazette bearing the date of the licence issued would sort the problem.
"Some records were lost during Idi Amin's regime between 1971 and 1979. We are requesting churches that do not see their names on the list but are sure they got the licences to come to our offices with proof," Ojok said.
Ojok warned that anyone who makes a false declaration that they are not married when they are is liable to be jailed for five years. It is also in the individual's interest to declare the truth because the second marriage will be null and void.
One assurance the URSB appears to have given religious leaders is that there is no problem with individually designed certificates as long as they follow the format prescribed in the law. Even with such concessions, there are areas which religious leaders want changed.
Areas of contention
The Marriage Act, chapter 251, section 20 of the Constitution states: "Marriages may be celebrated in any licensed place of worship by any recognised minister of the church, denomination or body to which the place of worship belongs, and according to the rites or usages of marriages observed in that church, denomination or body." Those who plan to wed outside a licensed place of worship, like gardens or the beach, have to obtain a special licence from the minister for that day only.
A church should be registered as a non-governmental organisation, a company limited by guarantee or as a trust before it can apply, by writing, to the Minister of Justice and Constitutional Affairs through the Registrar of Marriages to be gazetted and given a license to conduct marriages.
The application must include relevant documents like proof of ownership or lease of the house of worship. The place should not be in a residential house, near a discotheque, a bar or lodge or in a noisy place. The list of leaders ordained to officiate over weddings in that place is also tendered along with their qualifications. The Office of the Registrar General sends representatives to inspect the premises and write a report. When the process is complete, the licence is then issued. Additionally, the Government requires each licensed church to submit monthly reports of weddings conducted within their premises. A church will have its licence withdrawn if it carries out illegal weddings. Religious leaders who participate in illegal acts are also supposed to have their permission to wed withdrawn.
No matter how long the church has existed, or the reputation of the minister therein, some structures like tents and wooden structures will not be gazette to hold weddings, something which has riled some Muslim and Pentecostal churches. "In Islam, marriage can be conducted outside a place of worship, so long as the components that facilitate legal marriage are present, like the father, two witnesses, and the bridegroom," Hussein Musisi, a Muslim cleric from Kibuli Mosque said during the Tuesday meeting. He pointed out that when they gather for prayer in a grass-thatched mosque it is as holy as the Masjid in Makkah. Therefore, there was nothing wrong with marrying in the same holy ground.
Serwadda also believes that the law gives the minister too much power over who can be gazetted, but more importantly, "my view is to advocate for a change in the law and then use the review process to negotiate the minimum standards given for a church to get this license."
Nonetheless, Serwadda points out that the current law has to be respected and urges Christians intending to wed to ask their pastors whether they acquired a licence to officiate marriages.
Changes in the law
About the possible changes in the law, Ojok says it was not feasible now. "This is the first time we are engaging the religious leaders seriously and we are in the process of collecting their views." However, he indicated that a consultant had been engaged to look at the areas that need to be synchronized with the current circumstances. For instance, the list of churches is divided into provinces like Bukedi, Kyadondo and Singo that are no longer applicable given various new districts that have come up over the years.
Some churches have also complained that it takes too long to get the process completed. One pastor from a church in Bweyogerere said it has taken him four years since he applied.
Ojok explains that approval for a licence may take long because of the long checklist which people sometimes do not comply with. When the application goes to the minister's desk, it may take time.
He, however, expressed hope that the process would be faster now that the minister of justice was relieved of the additional portfolio of attorney general and there is also a state minister.
URSB has a new website still under construction which promises to avail more information to the public at a click of a mouse. Hopefully, the availability of the Uganda Gazette and other official listings will bridge the huge gap that has existed between the organ responsible for registration and the Ugandans who rely on their services.