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Cross-party peers urge immediate action on humanist marriages

Speaking in support of humanist marriages, top left to right: Baroness Thornton, Baroness Blackstone, Baroness Meacher, The Bishop of St Albans

During oral questions in the House of Lords today, peers from a breadth of political and belief backgrounds spoke in favour of the immediate legal recognition for humanist marriages in England and Wales. The Bishop of St Albans called the power the Government has to give immediate recognition ‘the best way forward’ that ‘could be achieved most easily’. This is the second oral question on the subject asked in the Lords this year. Humanists UK leads the campaign for their legal recognition. It welcomes the interventions made today. But it has expressed its disappointment at the UK Government’s failure to commit to reform.

Baroness Bakewell DBE, Co-Chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Humanist Group (APPHG), tabled the question. Labour peer Baroness Blackstone, also an APPHG member, spoke on her behalf. She asked when humanist marriages would gain legal recognition in England and Wales – to which the Government failed to provide a timescale.

The question follows the Law Commission’s publication of its weddings law report in July. As per a High Court ruling, the Government must act on humanist marriages now this is out. The Government said it would respond to the Law Commission’s report in the first half of next year. But any subsequent wholesale marriage law reform of the sort the Law Commission has proposed may take years to implement. As highlighted by peers today, legal recognition for humanist marriages can happen now through an Order-making power under the Marriage Act 2013. This does not require a new Act of Parliament.

Baroness Thornton spoke for the Labour frontbench. She questioned why the Government had yet to lay the 2013 Order. APPHG officer Baroness Burt of Solihull spoke for the Liberal Democrats frontbench. She questioned the Government on its belief in marriage as an institution in light of its failure to legally recognise humanist marriages.

The Bishop of St Albans also spoke. He reiterated the Church of England’s lack of opposition to humanist marriages, and expressed a preference for reform through the 2013 Act. He said:

‘Those of us on this bench in principle have no problem at all with humanist weddings, but would not the Minister agree with me that the best way forward is one that’s been alluded to already, which is that it could be achieved most easily by following the historical precedence which has been established with Jewish and Quaker weddings, rather than adopting what is the overtly complex recommendations of the Law Commission report?’

Lord Griffiths, Labour peer and former President of the Methodist Conference, also spoke. He said:

‘… As an ordained Methodist minister nearing 50 years since he’s been ordained, and as someone who enjoys the fellowship of humanist celebrants in funeral services in crematoria across the city, may I therefore declare to the Minister my total bewilderment at the nature of this discussion? It would enrich all of us if people according to conscience and practice could marry in the way being asked for in this question … it would be an addition to the richness and the value of the ceremonies we produce.’

Conservative peer Lord Cormack said:

‘As one who believes very fervently in Christian marriage, but even more in the institution of marriage, how can it be sensible to allow a wedding to take place in a registry office, but not to allow humanists, who have their own ethics, to have a proper marriage ceremony?’

Also to speak were Liberal Democrat Baroness Brinton, crossbencher Baroness Meacher, and independent Lord Desai.

Humanists UK Humanist Marriage Campaigner Tallulah Gordon commented: 

‘For the second time this year, peers from across the House have thrown their weight behind immediate legal recognition of humanist marriages. Yet the Government continues to drag its feet. Humanist marriages have already sat on the statute books for nine years and counting, but the statute hasn’t been enacted in that time. This isn’t good enough. In line with the calls made today, we hope the Government will do the right thing and get on with legal recognition immediately, as it can easily do 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.

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. 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.

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’. 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.

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