The UK Government has today announced it will make permanent the legal recognition of outdoor civil and religious marriages in England and Wales. The decision follows a consultation on the matter, that Humanists UK responded to. Humanists UK has expressed its disappointment that similar reform has not been used to legally recognise humanist marriages. It has urged the Government to do so without delay.
In 2020, the High Court ruled that the failure to extend legal recognition to humanist marriages was discriminatory. But the decision to delay reform was deemed to be justified by the Law Commission’s ongoing review into marriage law, now expected to report in July of this year. However, this justification was only considered lawful because the Government said that piecemeal reform to marriage law was undesirable. In particular, it cited inconsistencies in existing law around outdoor marriages. It has now undermined this argument. It remains unclear why outdoor marriages can receive legal recognition prior to the outcome of the review, while humanist marriages cannot.
Legislation to make outdoor civil marriages and civil partnerships permanent will be laid later today. Reforms to extend legal recognition to outdoor religious marriages expected later this year. Temporary measures to recognise outdoor marriages were first introduced in June 2021. The Government consulted on making these permanent in December.
Legal recognition of humanist marriages has been under constant Government review since the 2013 Marriage Act gave it the power to extend legal recognition to them by order.
Humanists UK’s Chief Executive Andrew Copson commented:
‘We’ve often heard the Government line that any piecemeal reform of marriage law must wait until the outcome of the Law Commission’s review. But the decision today to recognise outdoor civil and religious marriages has undermined that position. If piecemeal reform like this is possible, it is all the more disappointing the Government has been dragging its feet on humanist marriages for so long.
‘In making today’s decision, the Government pointed to the popularity of reform on outdoor marriages amongst the public. But humanist marriages, too, have long had the weight of public opinion on their side, with a 2014 consultation finding 95% support for a change in the law.
‘Just like outdoor civil and religious marriages, humanist marriages would be popular, meaningfully increase the choice of couples, and provide a much-needed boost to the weddings industry. We once again urge the Government to extend legal recognition to humanist marriages without delay.’
For further comment or information, media should contact Humanists UK Director of Public Affairs and Policy Richy Thompson at firstname.lastname@example.org 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 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 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 did this because she saw the Government’s argument in favour of wholesale, rather than piecemeal, reform, as legitimate. This argument was particularly based on inconsistencies in existing marriage laws as to which can happen outdoors. 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.’
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.