Humanist marriages are an LGBT rights issue – LGBT groups and activists

18 April, 2023

Pictured: Humanists UK Patron Sandi Toksvig, Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0) Source: Flickr

Sandi Toksvig and Stephen Fry have led LGBT groups and activists in calling on the UK Government to grant legal recognition to humanist marriages in England and Wales immediately, in an open letter published today.

The letter focuses on the impact a change in the law would have for same-sex couples. Among those to sign are the LGBT groups affiliated to the three biggest political parties: LGBT+ Conservatives, LGBT+ Labour, and LGBT+ Liberal Democrats; and leading LGBTQ+ groups Stonewall, Peter Tatchell Foundation, the LGBT Foundation, and the LGBT+ Consortium.

The letter follows on from the publication of the Census results by religion and sexual orientation, which revealed for the first time that most LGBT people are non-religious. 63% of people who said on the Census that they are lesbian, gay, or bisexual also ticked ‘No religion’. It also follows on from the decision in the last few months of the Church of England to refuse to conduct same-sex marriages, and research published by Humanists UK last autumn that revealed that less than 1% of places of worship in England and Wales offer same-sex marriages.

These things, the letter’s authors say, are why enacting recognition of humanist marriages would be such a significant move for LGBT couples – something the Government has the power to do.

More generally, a higher share of same-sex couples are humanists than Christians. If both humanist and Church of England marriages were legally recognised, then there will probably be more same-sex humanist marriages than same-sex Anglican marriages.

Humanist marriages have faced constant review in England and Wales for the past ten years. The Marriage Act 2013 allows humanist marriages to be given legal recognition by Order, a power that the Government has yet to use. All Humanists UK wedding celebrants conduct same-sex weddings.

The letter reads:

Dear Rt Hon Dominic Raab,

As LGBTQ+ people, groups, and allies, we are coming together to call for the immediate legal recognition of humanist marriages in England and Wales. We are doing so following new statistics showing that 63% of people who said on the Census they are lesbian, gay, or bisexual ticked ‘No religion’.

Legal recognition would have a profound impact on LGBTQ+ couples. Few religious groups offer same-sex marriages. The lack of recognition of humanist marriages only reduces same-sex couples’ options further. As the law currently stands, if a couple wants a humanist wedding, they must undergo a second, unwanted civil ceremony to be married in the eyes of the law. This entails a significant financial and administrative burden. Considering the Census figures, this is an all the more unacceptable state of affairs.

Humanist celebrants belong to a staunchly pro-LGBTQ+ tradition, with a proud history of conducting same-sex weddings decades before the law caught up. And when it finally did, humanists were at the forefront of the campaign for change.

LGBTQ+ couples in Scotland, Northern Ireland, Ireland, and the Channel Islands already have legally recognised humanist marriages, and the first same-sex marriages in Scotland were humanist. But the matter has been under review in England and Wales for a decade now. That’s more than long enough. If the UK wants to be a global leader when it comes to promoting the freedoms of LGBTQ+ people, it must recognise humanist marriages in England and Wales.

Yours sincerely,

Sandi Toksvig, Writer, comedian, and presenter

Stephen Fry, Actor, comedian, writer, and presenter

Nancy Kelley, Chief Executive, Stonewall

Peter Tatchell, Director, Peter Tatchell Foundation

Terrence Higgins Trust

Paul Roberts OBE, Chief Executive, LGBT+ Consortium

Dr Paul Martin OBE, Chief Executive, LGBT Foundation

Elena Rose Bunbury, Chair, LGBT+ Conservatives

Christopher Rhys Lawton, LGBT+ Labour

Gareth Lewis Shelton, LGBT+ Liberal Democrats

Hugh Fell, Trustee, FFLAG

Ian Howley, Chief Executive, LGBT HERO

Andy Hunt, CEO, Intercom Trust

Jen Yockney MBE, Convenor, BiPhoria

Danielle St James, Chief Executive, Not A Phase

Carl Austin-Behan OBE, LGBTQ+ Community Activist and Lead, Greater Manchester Pride Network

Nick Baldwin, Coordinator, LGBT Humanists

Humanists UK Chief Executive Andrew Copson commented:

‘Legal recognition of humanist marriages would be good for couples, good for marriage, and good for the economy. It would strengthen freedom of religion or belief and level England and Wales up to match Scotland and Northern Ireland. It is what the public wants. It is past time it happens.’


For further comment or information, media should contact Humanists UK Director of Public Affairs and Policy Richy Thompson at or phone 020 7324 3072 or 020 3675 0959.

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.