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Cross-party MPs urge Minister to legally recognise humanist marriages in Westminster Hall debate

Photo credit: Simon Hutchinson

Today cross-party MPs called on the UK Government to legally recognise humanist marriages in a Westminster Hall debate. The debate was led by Co-Chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Humanist Group (APPHG) Crispin Blunt MP, and saw Conservative, Labour, and Plaid Cymru colleagues speak in favour. Humanists UK welcomed MPs’ efforts in calling for this crucial reform and praised the high quality of the debate.

The debate was led by Co-Chair of the APPHG Crispin Blunt MP and was backed by 26 cross-party MPs from a diversity of religion or belief backgrounds including from the Conservatives, Labour, Liberal Democrats, SNP, and Plaid Cymru. It also follows the publication of a joint letter signed by 53 MPs and peers calling on the UK Government to legally recognise humanist marriages in England and Wales.

The debate also took place after Crispin Blunt MP questioned Andrew Selous MP, the Second Church Estates Commissioner, on the Church of England’s position on legal recognition. In this exchange, Mr Selous confirmed that ‘the Church of England has no principled objection to humanist marriage’.

Crispin Blunt MP, Conservative, opened the debate by explaining that humanist marriages are ‘built around the idea that the best ceremonies are all about the participants—their beliefs, their values, their family, their friends and their wider place in the world’. As such he noted that humanist marriages are ‘more likely to last’ and that evidence from Scotland points to legal recognition of humanist marriages coinciding with the end of a long-term decline in the number of marriages taking place. Mr Blunt highlighted that the 1,400 couples in England and Wales who have a humanist wedding each year face extra financial and administrative burdens as they must have a civil marriage separately in order to be legally married. He stressed ‘The Government gained the power to extend legal recognition of humanist marriages all the way back in 2013’ and set out how they have been reviewing it ever since. He called for the Government to level up England and Wales by enhancing freedom of choice for non-religious couples through legally recognising humanist marriages.

Dr James Davies MP, Conservative, stated that he met with his humanist celebrant constituent Dawn Davies and asked when legislation might be forthcoming for England and Wales.

APPHG member Rachel Hopkins MP, Labour, opened her speech by declaring herself a humanist. Ms Hopkins then used her speech to explain why each humanist wedding was unique, drawing on quotes from humanist celebrants from The Little Book of Humanist Weddings. She outlined how each wedding is unique, the important role of preparation, the need to pick the right location, the significance of who attends, how the journey down the aisle is different in humanist ceremonies from others, the place of the script, including the vows, and how symbolic actions can contribute. She quoted celebrant Laura Gimson as saying, ‘I used to think we all loved in roughly the same way, but actually the specificity of love is what keeps my job as a celebrant so interesting. It’s such a joy to uncover the many and varied ways that we humans show our fondness for one another.’ She also expanded at length on how the current requirement to have two weddings causes discrimination, and how registrars often heighten this.

APPHG member Nia Griffith MP, Labour, stated that the Government already has the power to legally recognise humanist marriages and that legal recognition can be done ‘quickly, easily, and supported by all sides of [the] House’. Ms Griffith raised that the Welsh Government supports legal recognition and Ben Lake MP, Plaid Cymru, agreed and expressed frustration that Wales is behind the other parts of the UK.

Jeff Smith MP, Vice-Chair of the APPHG, identified that the current situation ‘treats religious people more favourably than humanists, offering the former a privilege [marriage in line with their beliefs] that is denied to the latter’. He set out at length the view of the UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief, Dr Ahmed Shaheed, on the situation in different jurisdictions around the world, and how the situation in England and Wales is unlawful. He raised the recent humanist marriage legal cases in Northern Ireland and in England and Wales, and asked why the Government hasn’t committed to legal recognition in light of these decisions, and called on the Government to do so at the soonest opportunity.

Speaking for the Labour front bench, Andy Slaughter MP stated that the current law ‘is discriminatory, treats humanists as second class citizens and imposes an additional financial burden on them’. He outlined Labour’s long support for this change, going back to 2013. He raised that Rehman Chishti MP, the Prime Minister’s previous Special Envoy on Freedom of Religion or Belief, also supports humanist marriages, and introduced a Private Members’ Bill on the subject in 2020.

Marriage Minister Tom Pursglove MP praised the quality of the debate and strength of feeling in favour of legal recognition of humanist marriages. However, he repeated the Government’s firm stance that the matter must wait for the outcome of the Law Commission’s review on marriage. Mr Pursglove also expressed concerns that granting legal recognition to humanist marriages would privilege them over other groups in enabling them to get married anywhere as opposed to other groups which he said were restricted to approved premises.

Humanists UK’s Director of Public Affairs and Policy Richy Thompson said:

‘We were delighted to hear so many MPs from across the political spectrum call for the urgent legal recognition of humanist marriages. Today’s debate reflects that after nine years MPs feel strongly that this reform is past due.

‘The Government must now act to legally recognise humanist marriages, even on an interim basis, before the outcome of the Law Commission review.’

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.

Watch the Westminster Hall debate.

Watch the Church Commissioner’s oral question regarding humanist marriages.

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

About humanist marriages

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 nine 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 Welsh Government recently called on the UK Government to legally recognise 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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