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Success! Humanist marriages to be written explicitly into Northern Ireland law

Briege and Warren’s humanist marriage. Photo credit Emma Kenny.

Northern Ireland Finance Minister Conor Murphy has announced the Government’s intention to write humanist marriages explicitly into Northern Irish law. The decision follows a public consultation that Northern Ireland Humanists responded to. Today it has welcomed the announcement.

Humanist marriages have been legally recognised in Northern Ireland under case law since 2017, following a campaign led by Northern Ireland Humanists. Although this form of recognition is permanent, writing them directly into marriage law makes the law easier for everyone to understand, as it makes explicit in the legislation what is required by the legal precedent. It also gives the Northern Ireland Government an opportunity to consider how the marriage law is operating. And it’s a show of support from the Government for humanist marriages.

The Department of Finance consulted on changes to Northern Ireland’s marriage law earlier this year.

70% of online consultation respondents and all written respondents supported changing the law to explicitly place belief marriages on an equal footing with religious marriages. The Catholic Church, Church of Ireland, and Presbytarian Church also agreed with the change on equality grounds. The Department will now prepare to bring forward a Bill to make this change. The legislation will also raise the minimum age of marriage in Northern Ireland to 18. However, it will not be brought forward until Northern Ireland has both a functioning Assembly and Executive.

Humanist marriages first gained legal recognition in Northern Ireland in 2017 following successful High Court and Court of Appeal judgments. The High Court case was taken by humanist couple Laura Lacole and Eunan O’Kane, and supported by Northern Ireland Humanists. At present, Northern Ireland’s Marriage (NI) Order 2003 only explicitly recognises civil and religious marriages. The judgments require the law to be read as inclusive of belief marriages.

Announcing the change, Finance Minister Conor Murphy, of Sinn Fein, noted that

‘Under the existing arrangements, which have now been in place for more than five years, belief marriage has become commonplace in this jurisdiction.’

The Alliance Party also issued a statement welcoming the news. Kellie Armstrong MLA said:

‘I am delighted these impending changes have been announced, particularly to ensure non-religious marriages are treated equally in law to faith marriages… Northern Ireland is a changing society and this move reflects that. Everybody does not fit into a specific definition, rather instead being part of the wealth of diversity across our community. It’s time everyone respected people of other beliefs in law.’

Northern Ireland Humanists Coordinator Boyd Sleator commented: 

‘As we celebrate the five year anniversary of legal recognition for humanist marriages, it is great to see that they are to be explicitly put on the same legal footing as religious ones. We look forward to seeing this legislation for belief marriages brought forward, and hope that it will motivate the UK Government to finally act on the lack of legal recognition of humanist marriages for our counterparts in England and Wales.’


For further comment or information, media should contact Northern Ireland Humanists Coordinator Boyd Sleator at or phone 07918 975795.

Read the Written Ministerial Statement on the marriage law consultation.

Read the Department of Finance’s press release.

Read the Alliance Party’s press release.

Read more about our work on humanist marriages.

Northern Ireland Humanists is part of Humanists UK, working with the Humanist Association of Ireland. 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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