All-Party Parliamentary Group demands humanist marriage reform now

24 October, 2022

© Humanists UK

In a new report published today, cross-party parliamentarians have called for immediate legal recognition of humanist marriages in England and Wales. The report, No Lawful Impediment, is the second by the All-Party Parliamentary Humanist Group (APPHG) to focus on the matter. The previous report was in 2018. The new report concludes that the case for legal recognition has only grown stronger, and that there is now no good reason not to implement this change immediately. Humanists UK has welcomed the report.

The cross-party group renewed the recommendation made in its previous report for the Government to legally recognise humanist marriages immediately. This would not require a new Act of Parliament. It can be done through secondary legislation. And in an entirely new recommendation, the APPHG also called for the Government to recognise that it is now required to legislate for humanist marriages following a landmark High Court case in 2020.

This is because in Harrison, the High Court found that the lack of legal recognition was discriminatory. The judge said that the Secretary of State ‘cannot simply… sit on his hands’ and do nothing to resolve it. The judge also ruled that this discrimination was then legal because of the Law Commission’s then-ongoing review of weddings law. But that review has now completed. Since 2020, the Government has failed to confirm that it will legislate for humanist marriages. It now must.

The report highlighted that any new Act of Parliament following the Law Commission’s project is unlikely to be brought forward until 2024, at the very earliest. It may not be implemented this side of a general election. And it has uncovered that at least eight piecemeal reforms to marriage law were pursued while the Law Commission’s project was ongoing. This is despite the Government’s argument that it cannot give legal recognition to humanist marriages as piecemeal reform is undesirable.

The APPHG is a cross-party group of parliamentarians from both Houses of Parliament. The Group is co-chaired by Tommy Sheppard MP and Baroness Bakewell, and has 115 members. Humanists UK provides the secretariat.

Claimants in the 2020 High Court case Victoria Hosegood and Charli Janeway are expected to say the following at the report’s launch event in Parliament later today: 

‘Unfortunately, the law did not change in time for our wedding in September 2021. But we remain adamant that our humanist wedding was the one that counts.

‘While we couldn’t wait any longer to get married, it is my hope that in the future, humanist couples like us will no longer have to face these same difficulties. I hope that my husband and I have played a part in bringing us closer to that goal.’

Baroness Bakewell DBE wrote in the report’s foreword:

`We [the APPHG] see no new reasons why humanists should not be afforded the same responsibility to conduct their own marriages as religious groups have long enjoyed. With the release of this update, we are once again calling for the immediate legal recognition of humanist marriages under the Marriage Act 2013.’

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 the All-Party Parliamentary Humanist Group’s (APPHG) new report, No Lawful Impediment, 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 Humanists UK’s 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.

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.