Temporary marriage reform excludes humanist marriages

20 June, 2021

Image credit Alexander Jane photography.

From July legal recognition will be extended to outdoor civil marriages in England and Wales. The UK Government has announced that it will change the law to allow this until at least April 2022. But it has made no announcement about legal recognition of humanist marriages. Humanists UK has called for their legal recognition to now also happen, on the same interim basis. It is writing to the Government to request such a change.

In recent years the Government has resisted legal recognition of humanist marriages on the basis that piecemeal reform of marriage law should not occur. It has argued that marriage law reform should wait for the outcome of an ongoing Law Commission review. Humanists UK believes today’s move undermines that argument.

The move by the Government will only affect venues that are already approved to hold civil weddings and partnership registrations indoors. They will now also be able to hold marriages on outdoor parts of their premises.

Humanists UK Chief Executive Andrew Copson commented:

‘For years now the Government has been resisting legal recognition of humanist marriages on the basis that piecemeal reform of marriage law is undesirable. It has particularly pointed to the need to deal with inconsistent rules around which types of marriage can take place outdoors. It has argued that allowing humanist marriages to take place outdoors when some other types cannot would be unfair. It has even made this argument in court.

‘For it to now allow civil marriages outdoors while not also legally recognising humanist marriages is therefore unfair, even by its own logic. It must now extend legal recognition to humanist marriages, at least on the same basis as it is for outdoor civil marriages.’

Since 2013, the Government has had the power to extend legal recognition to humanist marriages by Order. A new Act of Parliament is not required. Humanists UK believes the Government should use this power at the same time as it extends legal recognition to outdoor civil marriages.


For further comment or information, please contact Humanists UK Director of Public Affairs and Policy Richy Thompson at press@humanists.uk or phone 020 7324 3072 or 020 3675 0959.

Humanist weddings are non-religious wedding ceremonies that are fully customised to match the deepest-held values and beliefs of the couple getting married. They are conducted by a humanist celebrant, someone guaranteed to share their beliefs. In consultation with the couple the celebrant produces a completely bespoke script. The ceremony also occurs in whatever location is most meaningful for the couple. Humanists UK has more than 300 trained and accredited wedding celebrants.

Humanist celebrants are well versed in mitigating pandemic-related risks. They create meaningful and authentic ceremonies in a safe and considered way, as is now needed for every event.

Humanist marriages gained legal recognition in Scotland in 2005 and in 2019 there were more humanist than Christian marriages for the first time (23% of the total). In the Republic of Ireland, humanist marriages gained legal recognition in 2012. In 2019 around 9% of legally recognised marriages were humanist. That places the Humanist Association of Ireland only behind the Catholic Church and civil marriages. They gained legal recognition in Northern Ireland in 2018, 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 2019 and in 2021 Guernsey followed suit.

Legal recognition in England and Wales has been under constant Government review since 2013. The Marriage Act gave the Government the power to enact legal recognition of humanist marriages without needing a new Act. But in the eight years since, the Government has not done this. Instead it has reviewed the matter three times. The third, current review is by the Law Commission. It is not likely to result in a new Act for several years. It may not even result in legal recognition at all – the Government has still refused to commit to this.

In 2020, six humanist couples took a legal case to the High Court. They argued that they were discriminated against by the fact that religious marriages are legally recognised but humanist marriages are not. The judge in the case agreed, ruling that ‘the present law gives rise to… discrimination’. She also ruled that, in light of that, the Secretary of State for Justice ‘cannot… simply sit on his hands’ and do nothing. However, given the ongoing Law Commission review, she also said that the Government’s refusal to act immediately can be justified ‘at this time’. She concluded, ‘Although I may deprecate the delay that has occurred since 2015, I cannot ignore the fact that there is currently an on-going review of the law of marriage in this country.’ The couples are exploring an appeal of this. They think that the eight years the Government has already had reviewing the matter is long enough. The Government’s latest move will only add strength to their claim.

Read today’s Government announcement.

Read more about our work on legal recognition of humanist marriages.

Humanists UK is the national charity working on behalf of non-religious people. Powered by 100,000 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.

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