Opposition calls for immediate legal recognition of humanist marriages

9 July, 2021

Photo credit Ross Holkham Photography.

The Labour frontbench has called for immediate legal recognition of humanist marriages in England and Wales. It made the call following the legal recognition of outdoor civil marriages, but the failure to deliver any similar much-needed reform for humanists.

On 1 July the UK Government changed the law to allow outdoor civil marriages until at least April 2022. But it made no announcement about legal recognition of humanist marriages. Humanists UK believes the civil marriage reform will do little to deal with the present backlog of marriages. That is because the backlog is driven by a shortage of registrars who can conduct legally recognised marriages, not by a shortage of venues. By contrast, legal recognition of humanist marriages would help with that. It would stop couples who only want a humanist wedding from also having to have an unwanted civil marriage to be legally married.

What is more, the civil marriage reform in fact undermines the case against making the same move for humanist marriages. In recent years the Government has resisted this 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, which will take years to implement. It even made that argument before the High Court last summer, when six humanist couples took a human rights claim. In fact that argument was the only reason the judge refused to grant a declaration of incompatibility in the case.

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. Labour believes the Government should use this power to also give time-limited legal recognition to humanist marriages.

Alex Cunningham MP, Labour’s shadow minister for courts and sentencing, commented:

‘Labour welcomes the Government’s announcement on marriage reform which will provide more flexibility to people getting married and could provide a huge boost to the hospitality industry, which has been so badly hit during the last 15 months.

‘But the Government hasn’t gone far enough with the reforms. They seem to have a total blind spot when it comes to humanist ceremonies which, yet again, they fail to include. More than a thousand couples a year have humanist weddings. It’s time Ministers saw the light and ended this stupid anomaly and allowed them the same opportunity to marry in line with their beliefs as their religious counterparts.’

The Liberal Democrats, the Green Party of England and Wales, and Plaid Cymru all also support immediate legal recognition of humanist marriages. Humanist marriages are already legally recognised in Scotland and Northern Ireland.

Humanists UK Director of Public Affairs and Policy Richy Thompson commented:

‘There is no good reason to delay legal recognition of humanist marriages any further. The Government must make this reform as a matter of urgency. If it then decides to change the marriage law again after the Law Commission review, then there would be nothing that would stop it from doing so.’


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.

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

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