Revealed: how brand new small religions get marriage recognition while millions of humanists are excluded

21 October, 2022

Pictured: humanist wedding, England, ©Debs Alexander Photography

More than 500 religious denominations can conduct legally recognised marriages in England and Wales – and at least nine started doing so since 2013, when the Government gained the unused power to similarly recognise humanist marriages. These findings are part of a first ever analysis by Humanists UK into which groups are registered with the General Register Office (GRO) for conducting marriages. Some denominations on the register were founded in the time that Humanists UK has been campaigning for legal recognition for humanist marriages, including one as recently as 2009. In light of these findings, Humanists UK has questioned why recognition for humanist marriages has taken so long.

The GRO routinely publishes a list of all registered places of worship in England and Wales. All registered places of worship are eligible to further register to perform marriages. When registering, a place of worship must list the name of the denomination it belongs to. Published today, Humanists UK’s report is the first ever analysis of how many denominations there are. It reveals that:

  • At least 535 denominations have a registered place of worship in England and Wales. These belong to 39 religions. Some, like the Aetherius Society and the Church of the White Eagle Lodge, are extremely small.
  • 376 of the denominations/20 of the religions have further registered their places of worship to conduct opposite-sex marriages (a fairly trivial step once initial registration is granted). Again, some are very small.
  • While nearly three quarters of all places of worship in England and Wales have registered to conduct opposite-sex marriages, less than 1% have registered to perform same-sex marriages.

New religious groups performing marriages

This analysis also finds that new groups have routinely joined the register since the Government first gained the power to legally recognise humanist marriages by Order in 2013. It reveals that:

  • At least 16 denominations registered a place of worship for the first time since 2015.
  • Of these groups, at least seven have further registered to conduct opposite-sex marriages. This figure includes the Church of Scientology, which gained the right to register its places of worship following its victory at the Supreme Court in Hodkin in 2014.
  • Two more groups that had a registered place of worship prior to the list’s first publication online in 2015 have further registered to perform marriages since.

Some of the denominations with registered places of worship are very new. This includes the Order of St Leonard, founded in 2009. Also registered are the Goddess People of Avalon and He Lives Bible Church, which formed in 2000 and 1998, respectively. Other registered religions, like the Brahma Kumaris, have as few as 450 followers in England and Wales, according to 2011 Census statistics.

Humanist marriages: never ending review

The Government maintains that it cannot pursue immediate legal recognition for humanist marriages. It says that this is because of the undesirability of piecemeal marriage reform. This argument saved it from defeat at the High Court in 2020. However, the findings published today show that multiple groups have, in a piecemeal fashion, gained the ability to perform marriages in the time that the Government has refused to recognise humanist marriages.

Humanists UK has campaigned for legally recognised humanist marriages in England and Wales for decades. Humanist marriages have been on the Government’s formal agenda since at least 2001, when a wholesale reform of marriage law was first proposed. This was abandoned in 2005, with the matter being put out to further consultation in 2013. That has been the case ever since. Humanists have conducted wedding ceremonies since the 19th century.

Polling suggests around 7% of British adults self-identify as humanists. In Scotland, Ireland, and Northern Ireland, legal recognition of humanist marriages has been followed by a surge in demand for them.

Humanists UK Chief Executive Andrew Copson commented:

‘Our research reveals an extremely broad number of groups enjoy legal recognition of their marriages, and that new ones join the list in a piecemeal fashion all the time. This makes it all the more unjustifiable that humanists do not have recognition. Such an extension would be instrumental in increasing the options available to all couples, but especially to same-sex couples, given just how few options such couples have other than state registrars.’

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.

Read Humanists UK’s briefing on its analysis of registered places of worship in England and Wales.

View Humanists UK’s spreadsheet of registered places of worship in England and Wales in full.

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 latest review was published in July 2022 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.’ The Law Commission review reported in July, so the Government must now make a decision on humanist marriages.

Read more about our work on 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.