In the House of Lords this afternoon, 11 peers from all major parties questioned the Government on its failure to legally recognise humanist marriages in England and Wales. This follows the Government’s decision in March to make outdoor civil and religious marriages permanent, but not humanist marriages. Humanists UK leads the campaign for the legal recognition of humanist marriages. It welcomed the calls made by peers today. But it expressed its disappointment that the Government continues to refuse immediate reform.
During oral questions, the cross-party peers pressed the Government on why it still hasn’t given humanist couples the right to marry in line with their beliefs. The Government argued that it won’t take any action until the Law Commission has reported on its ongoing review into marriage law, because of inconsistencies around marriage venue laws. This is despite it having the power to legally recognise humanist marriages under existing laws since 2013. As highlighted by Baroness Meacher, this would give humanists the exact same rights to marry as those already enjoyed by the Quakers and Jewish groups.
Baroness Burt of Solihull, a member of the All-Party Parliamentary Humanist Group (APPHG), asked the oral question on why the Government failed to legislate for humanist marriages at the same time as outdoor civil and religious marriages. Lord Ponsonby of Shulbrede spoke for the Labour frontbench. He asked why the Government would not enact reform when the Labour Party, the Liberal Democrats, and the Welsh and Scottish Governments are all in favour of humanist marriages. Speaking for the Liberal Democrat frontbench, Baroness Featherstone asked for the timescale of reform. The Government refused to provide one.
Conservative peers Lord Pickles and Lord Cormack, Labour peers Baroness Whitaker, Lord Cashman, and Baroness Hayter, independent peers Lord Desai and Baroness Blackstone, and crossbencher Baroness Meacher also spoke in favour.
Lord Pickles, formerly Communities Secretary under David Cameron, was among the peers to offer his support for the immediate legal recognition of humanist marriages. He said:
‘My Lords, we obviously anticipate the advice of the Law Commission, but ultimately this is going to be a political decision. It will be a decision the Government will make. And it does seem, given the importance of humanism, both in terms of western civilisation and in terms of the British character, it would make enormous sense to end this rather silly discrimination, and to give humanists the right to be able to get married in a ceremony of their choice, and in a location of their choice.’
Humanists UK Marriage Campaigner Tallulah Gordon commented:
‘That peers from across the political spectrum spoke in favour of humanist marriages today demonstrates the strength of feeling within Parliament that the law on this issue must change. With this in mind, it is hugely disappointing that the Government has stuck to its line that it must wait until the Law Commission’s review of marriage law before taking any action. This is despite the ease with which it could enact reform using existing powers it has held for over nine years. We urge the Government to reconsider and legally recognise 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.’ But since then, the Government has introduced outdoor civil and religious marriages. Yet it still continues to refuse to commit to act.
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.