UK Government excludes humanist marriages in fast track review of marriage venues

29 June, 2019

The UK Government has announced details of its upcoming review into marriage laws in England and Wales, and announced it intends to fast-track legal recognition of civil marriages taking place in outdoor venues. The fast-track omits legal recognition of humanist marriages – in spite of this being the most popular change the Government could possibly make – and Humanists UK has accused the Government of thus deliberately thwarting many couples from having the legally recognised humanist marriages they want.

In its announcement, the Government has said:

‘Couples will be able to get married in a marquee in their garden, in their own sitting-room, pubs or at sea after ministers announced plans to scrap outdated rules around wedding venues. The Government is launching a two-year review on how and where marriages can take place. Separately it will speed up plans to allow civil weddings and civil partnerships to be held outside.

‘Theresa May said: “The vital institution of marriage is a strong symbol of wider society’s desire to celebrate commitment between partners. But we can do more to bring the laws on marriage ceremonies up to date and to support couples in celebrating their commitment.”’

Full details of the Law Commission review’s terms of reference are expected to be published shortly. What reference they make to humanist marriages remains to be seen.

Responding to the announcement, Humanists UK President Alice Roberts said:

‘Although any move which makes it possible for couples to have a more meaningful start to their married life is to be welcomed, this is a blatant attempt by the Government to reduce demand for humanist marriages in England and Wales and reduce the pressure on themselves for legal recognition for humanist marriages.

‘The Prime Minister says she wants to bring marriage law up to date but for the last six years the Government has had the power to give legal recognition to humanist marriages, which was supported by over 90% of people in its own consultation on this issue. In Scotland legally recognised humanist marriages are now the most popular type and even in England and Wales, where they are not legally recognised, they have grown by 266% over the last fifteen years. The Government is missing the point with this time wasting and expensive review to find out what is staring it in the face.

‘Humanist weddings are unique and personal, hand-crafted to precisely match what couples want, conducted by a celebrant who shares their beliefs. This is why they have proven so popular. The two main arguments that the Government has given against doing so are the inconsistent laws around venues – with some religious groups being able to legally marry outdoors, as we would need, but others not – and the undesirability of piecemeal reform of the law. Today’s announcement, a piecemeal reform focused just on wedding venues, undermines both of those excuses. The law must change without any further delay.’


For further comment or information, please contact Humanists UK Director of Public Affairs and Policy Richy Thompson at or on 07815 589636.

About humanist marriages

A humanist wedding is a non-religious ceremony that is deeply personal and conducted by a humanist celebrant. It differs from a civil wedding in that it is entirely hand-crafted and reflective of the humanist beliefs and values of the couple, and conducted by a celebrant who shares their beliefs and values.

Humanist marriages have long been legally recognised in Scotland and the Republic of Ireland, and have had a transformative effect in both countries. They gained legal recognition in Scotland in 2005, and have risen in number from 85 in the first year to almost 7,000 in 2017 – some 20% of the total. Humanist Society Scotland provides more marriage ceremonies than the Church of Scotland or any other religion or belief group, and humanist marriages there have proven less likely than any other type of marriage to end in divorce. In the Republic of Ireland, humanist marriages gained legal recognition in 2012. In 2017 around eight percent of legal marriages were humanist, placing the Humanist Association of Ireland only behind the Catholic Church and civil marriages.

More recently humanist marriages became legal in Northern Ireland in August, following a Court of Appeal ruling that concluded that a failure to do so would be a breach of human rights. Jersey also gave legal recognition to humanist marriages in 2018, with the first ones happening in April, and Guernsey is currently considering doing the same thing.

In England and Wales, over 1,000 couples a year already have non-legal humanist wedding ceremonies, and they’ve seen 266% growth over the last 15 years. But such ceremonies cannot at present carry legal recognition, without the couple also going through the time and expense of having a civil marriage as well. This is unfair, and since religious marriages do carry such recognition, discriminatory. A recent opinion poll found that seven in ten adults in England and Wales want the law to change. Since 2013 humanist marriages have been on the statute books in England and Wales, but the UK Government hasn’t chosen to enact the relevant statute.

It is presently unclear how this review will include humanist marriages, but Humanists UK sees no good reason as to why humanist marriages need another review. Instead Humanists UK is asking the Government to urgently bring about legal recognition.

Read more about Humanists UK’s campaigns around marriage laws.

Humanists UK is the national charity working on behalf of non-religious people. Powered by over 85,000 members and supporters, we advance free thinking and promote humanism to create a tolerant society where rational thinking and kindness prevail. We provide ceremonies, pastoral care, education, and support services benefitting over a million people every year and our campaigns advance humanist thinking on ethical issues, human rights, and equal treatment for all.