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Humanists call on Government to legally recognise humanist marriages in England and Wales

Sawyer and Sawyer Photography

Yesterday the Government announced proposals to introduce outdoor civil marriages at approved premises on a permanent basis and to also introduce outdoor religious marriages, but failed to make any similar reforms to legally recognise humanist marriages. Humanists UK has urged the Government to act now to legally recognise humanist marriages without delay.

Humanists UK Chief Executive Andrew Copson commented:

‘In court last year, the Government said it would not give legal recognition to humanist marriages as it wished to avoid piecemeal reform of the law, and that instead further wholesale changes to marriage were to be subject to the Law Commission’s ongoing marriage review. That review was due to report earlier this year but has now been delayed until July 2022.

‘In spite of this and in contradiction to their previous statements, the Government is now proposing a significant piecemeal reform ahead of the Law Commission’s report.

‘We are calling on the Government to legally recognise humanist marriages now and without delay. Humanists have waited eight long years for legal recognition since Parliament gave the Government the power to do it and this new shifting of the goalposts makes a further mockery of the whole situation.’

Notes:

For further comment or information, media should contact Humanists UK Director of Public Affairs and Policy Richy Thompson at press@humanists.uk or phone 020 7324 3072 or 07534 248 596.

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.’

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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