Making religion legalistic and the law religious: Australia’s Marriage Act 1961

Photo by Akira Hojo on Unsplash

Australia’s Marriage Act has had a role in the lives of many, if not most, Australians since its enactment in 1961. But how much is really known about its genesis? The passage of the Marriage Act marked the culmination of a slow and hesitant process by which Australia’s national government assumed control over the regulation of entry into, as well as exit from, marriage. How did this happen? Why the early 1960s, rather than earlier? What was the nature of the regulation introduced by the Marriage Act? This paper will discuss some of my conclusions on these matters, applying a historical institutionalist approach to understanding the development of marriage law. In particular, it explores the central role given to Christian clergy in ensuring compliance with the legal requirements for getting married. This arrangement continued a long-term and subtle ‘partnership’ between religious bodies and the state that had regulated getting married in Australia since the colonial era.

Deborah Nance is a PhD candidate in the School of History at the Australian National University. Her project is the examination of the enactment and nature of Australia’s Marriage Act of 1961. Deborah has presented papers on her research to conferences of the Australian Historical Association and the Australian and New Zealand Law and History Society, as well as to a conference on policy and history. Deborah worked for many years as a lawyer in the Commonwealth Public Service in a variety of areas. She was national Registrar of Marriage Celebrants for ten years and had administrative responsibility for the Marriage Act 1961

Please note that the School of History seminars will run in-person only this semester.

Date & time

Wed 27 Sep 2023, 4.15–5.30pm


RSSS Auditorium, Ground Floor (Level 1), RSSS Building, ANU, 146 Ellery Crescent, Acton, ACT 2601


Deborah Nance


School of History


David Romney Smith


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