Humanists UK has called on the Government to give legal recognition to humanist weddings in England and Wales, following a report published today by the Law Commission.
In the final report of its review of weddings law in England and Wales, the Commission has set out plans for general reform of marriage law. These plans, if accepted by the Government, would take some years to implement, but Humanists UK has called on the Government to take action on humanist marriages immediately.
The Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act 2013 allowed the Government to recognise humanist marriages by laying an Order (simple secondary legislation that does not require an Act of Parliament). However, it has yet to do so and the Law Commission’s report published today is the third review of humanist marriages since this Act was passed nine years ago.
Humanists UK Chief Executive Andrew Copson, said:
‘Fundamental marriage reform, if it even happens, may take many years. The good news is that the Government doesn’t have to wait to give legal recognition to humanist marriages. It can do so now, without delay – and it should.
‘The Marriage Act 2013 allows the Government to legally recognise humanist marriages without needing a new Bill. We urge the Government to enact this now, and give couples in England and Wales the freedom to choose a marriage that aligns with their beliefs and values.
‘For thousands of couples it is hugely frustrating that something as uncontroversial as legal recognition for humanist marriages has been delayed for almost a decade.’
Today’s report is the culmination of a decade of government reviews into humanist marriages. In 2020, the High Court ruled that their legal recognition must follow on from the end of this project, when it found that the lack of legal recognition for humanist marriages in England and Wales is discriminatory. It ruled that the Government could wait for the Law Commission’s project to conclude before legally recognising humanist marriages, but that it had to resolve this discrimination afterwards. Humanists UK has expressed its concern about the prospect of ongoing delays if the Government waits to do humanist marriages as part of a general reform of marriage law – which may never happen and is calling on the Government to use its existing powers to legally recognise humanist marriages now, even if this only proves to be an interim measure.
Lincolnshire-based couple Kate Harrison and Christopher Sanderson, lead claimants in the 2020 High Court case, said:
‘Though the High Court ruled largely in our favour, it was a huge disappointment to be made to wait a further two years for the Law Commission to report. For more than a decade, we’ve postponed our wedding day. We’re waiting for a legally recognised ceremony that reflects who we are as committed humanists to become an option. We hope that the Government will now act immediately to recognise humanist marriages, and in doing so bring joy and happiness to thousands of couples like us.’
Sheffield-based humanist couple Anna Cooper and Sam Thomas said:
‘As humanists, it was obvious to us that our wedding ceremony should reflect not only our most strongly-held beliefs and values, but who we are as a couple. We’ve spent hours working with our humanist celebrant to carefully handcraft a ceremony that is unique and special to us. Why this can’t be the one that is recognised in the eyes of the law instead of a short impersonal ceremony at the registry office is hugely frustrating. Now that today’s announcement has cleared the way for action on humanist marriages, we sincerely hope the law will change on this issue before we tie the knot next year.’
Birmingham-based humanist couple Jennie Sutherland and Paul Goddard said:
‘We are so excited to celebrate not only the incredible love we have for each other, but the love we have for the people in our lives who support us in ways we will never finish repaying. However, as it stands, our humanist wedding will not be legally recognised, and we have to “get married” at a registry office, separate from our wedding, our venue, and our guests. It hurts to have that magical moment stolen from us – that moment where we officially move into the next chapter of our lives. We want to share that moment with the people we care about most. The fact that we do not have the same right as religious people is a bitter injustice.
‘That humanist weddings have long been legally recognised in Scotland and Northern Ireland is testament to how slow this country has been in granting people the parity they deserve. We simply want the same basic right as religious people to initiate our married life in a way that is personal, meaningful, and filled to the brim with joy.’
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. In July 2022, it was announced that humanist marriages would be explicitly written into a new Act in Northern Ireland. 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 review published today was 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. Law Commission proposals rarely become law. Since 2017, only 10% of Law Commission projects have been implemented.
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 then-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.