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The question posed in the title of this page is interesting because it would seem to be at first glance a question that should be addressed in a religious or faith based context rather in a civil or secular one. However, it offers an opportunity to examine the differences between divorce and annulment as well as the differences between a civil and a religious annulment.
A divorce is the dissolution of a legally valid marriage. By valid we mean that there was no legal barrier or impediment to prevent either spouse from entering into the marriage. A legally valid marriage can only be dissolved by a divorce granted by a civil court having jurisdiction over at least one of the spouses.
An annulment can be either civil or religious, with a civil annulment again being the only annulment to have legal bearing before a civil court. Unlike a divorce, which dissolves a legally valid marriage, an annulment declares that a marriage was never valid at its outset and the putative spouses are restored to their pre-marital status as if the marriage never existed.
In some cases a spouse may belong to a religious denomination that believes a marriage binds the spouses for the remainder of their natural lives and thus does not recognize a civil divorce. In such cases, a spouse can petition the appropriate ecclesiastic (church) body within their denomination to grant a religious annulment.
A religious annulment, unlike its civil counterpart, deals only with the spiritual grounds for declaring a marriage to be void from its outset. In most cases that arise within the western Judaeo-Christian traditions, the most common reason for granting a religious annulment is that the spouses were of different faiths or denominations and thus not recognized by the requesting spouse’s denomination. It is quite unusual for a religious annulment before a civil divorce or annulment.
The wording of the title question for this page suggests that there was a previous marriage but does not specifically state that there was a divorce. If there was no divorce, then the second marriage could not be a valid one because of bigamy being committed by one spouse. Hence, the non-bigamous spouse would revert to his or her premarital state as being single rather than a divorcee.
Another scenario suggested by the question is that there was a previous marriage that ended in divorce but that one spouse may have been a member of a religious or faith group that has some reservations concerning divorce, specifically that divorce is “Unbiblical” or “Unscriptural.” In this case, the second marriage is legally valid for both spouses. Although there may be religious issues that need to be addressed, these are not the concern of a civil court due to the fact the civil courts have a long tradition of refusing to insert themselves into matters which are purely religious in nature and must be addressed by the spouses either as a couple or separately.
Finally, it must be repeated that should someone desire an annulment, the civil courts are without authority to compel a former spouse to participate in a religious annulment and certainly without authority to compel such a body to issue an annulment.
In summary, while divorce is purely a civil matter while an annulment can be either a civil or religious matter. The distinguishing aspects of a civil annulment is that it decrees a marriage to have been null from its outset and never validly entered into. A religious annulment is purely distinct in that it has no civil authority of its own, cannot dissolve a legal marriage, and is practically always sought after a divorce.
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