Legal recognition of humanist marriages

Photograph of a humanist marriage in Northern Ireland.

We have long campaigned for reform of marriage laws – in order to gain legal recognition for both humanist and same-sex marriage ceremonies. Humanist marriages are now legally recognised in Scotland, Northern Ireland, Jersey, and Guernsey, as well as in neighbouring countries like the Republic of Ireland. But to date there is still no recognition of our wedding ceremonies in England and Wales or the Isle of Man.

A humanist wedding is a non-religious ceremony that is deeply personal and conducted by a humanist celebrant. It differs from a civil wedding in that it is entirely hand-crafted and reflective of the humanist beliefs and values of the couple, conducted by a celebrant who shares their beliefs and values.

Weddings conducted by a humanist celebrant can be performed in any part of the UK or crown dependencies, but they don’t come with legal recognition in England, Wales, or the Isle of Man. This is discriminatory, because religious people have a choice between being married by a civil registrar or being married by a representative of their religion who shares their approach to life, but those wanting a humanist wedding also have to have a separate civil marriage in order to be legally married. This causes additional expense and an administrative burden that religious couples don’t have to face, but more than that, couples often complain that the wedding ceremony they see as their ‘real’ marriage ceremony is not the one recognised in law as when they become legally married.

In England and Wales, the Marriage Act 2013 created a new category of legally recognised marriage in England and Wales – ‘marriages according to the usages of belief based organisations’. This category was created by the UK Parliament so that the Government could enact legal recognition to humanist marriages by secondary legislation. But in the many years since, the Government has still not enacted this. With over 1,000 couples a year already having humanist wedding ceremonies that are not legally recognised, we are urging the UK Government to act swiftly and bring about legal recognition.

In July 2020, in a case brought by six humanist couples, High Court judge Mrs Justice Eady DBE ruled that the failure to provide legally recognised humanist marriages means 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, she said, given that the Government is currently giving the matter consideration in the form of a review into marriage law by the Law Commission, the Government’s refusal to act immediately can be justified ‘at this time’ and 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.’ As a consequence, she declined to make a formal declaration that the Government is acting unlawfully at this time. We welcomed the court making clear that the failure to provide legal recognition of humanist marriages cannot be justified other than by saying that there is a review to redress the issue, but expressed disappointment at the Government being given more time to resolve it, particularly given how long humanist couples have already had to wait for legal recognition. In 2022, the Law Commission published its review of marriage law, leaving no further excuses for the Government not to enact legal recognition.

In depth

We want the law throughout the UK and crown dependencies to allow humanist celebrants to conduct legally recognised marriages, as it does in Scotland, Northern Ireland, Jersey, and Guernsey. This would give non-religious people the same choice that religious people have of a meaningful ceremony conducted by a person who shares their values and approach to life. Non-religious people in many other countries, from the Republic of Ireland to Australia to New Zealand to the USA already enjoy this choice.

Humanist marriages have long been legally recognised in Scotland and the Republic of Ireland, and have had a transformative effect in both countries. They gained legal recognition in Scotland in 2005, and have risen in number from 85 in the first year to in 2019 there being more humanist than Christian marriages (23% of the total). Humanist Society Scotland provides more marriage ceremonies than any other religion or belief group. In the Republic of Ireland, humanist marriages gained legal recognition in 2012. In 2019 around 9% of legally recognised marriages were humanist, placing the Humanist Association of Ireland only behind the Catholic Church and civil marriages.

In Northern Ireland, a 2018 Court of Appeal judgment on a human rights challenge led to the first legally recognised humanist marriages happening there that August. This judgment should logically mean the UK Government must now act for England and Wales as well.  Jersey also gave legal recognition to humanist marriages in 2019 and in 2021 Guernsey followed suit.

In England and Wales, the Law Commission is published its review of marriage laws in 2022. But on humanist marriages, it says it ‘will not be making recommendations on whether as a matter of policy new groups [i.e. humanists] should be allowed to conduct legally binding weddings, which is a decision for Government.’ So the Government still needs to take a view, although given the High Court has ruled that failing to act is discriminatory, it is clear what side it should fall on.

This is an outstanding human rights issue affecting thousands of couples and so the Government should just go ahead and resolve it immediately. Further, humanists have already been waiting for this change for decades on the back of one review or another. In 1999-2005 the Labour Government did a review of marriage venues and humanist marriages were discussed during that review. But nothing came of it. The same is true for 2014 MoJ and 2015 Law Commission consultations on humanist marriages. The review will take at least three years to see through to implementation, if it ever gets there at all. In the meantime, thousands of couples will miss out on the chance to have the sort of legal marriage they want.

At the very least, the Government should lay an order to bring about legal recognition, even if the state of law it produces is only an interim one until the implementation of whatever reforms the Law Commission review recommends. Otherwise, thousands of couples will be prevented from having the type of marriage which they would want, and to which human rights law means they should be entitled.

Legal recognition of humanist marriages would be hugely popular, is simple to bring about, good for families and for the economy, and end a clear inequality between humanist and religious couples. There is no good reason to delay such recognition. We are therefore calling on the UK Government to urgently use its existing powers to legally recognise humanist marriages.

What we’re doing

In recent years we have secured legal recognition of humanist marriages in Northern Ireland, Jersey, and Guernsey. We have also led the campaign for recognition elsewhere:

  • During the passage of the Marriage (Same-Sex Couples) Act 2013 through the UK Parliament, we worked hard to see humanist marriages gain legal recognition in England and Wales. After it became clear that a majority in both houses of Parliament were in favour of legalisation, the Government inserted a section in the Bill that means it can enact legal recognition to humanist marriages without requiring a new Act. The law also said the Government had to consult and make a decision on doing so before the end of 2014.
  • The results of the subsequent consultation, published in December 2014, showed over 90% of respondents in favour of legal recognition, but the Government still blocked the move, instead ordering the Law Commission to do a ‘scoping exercise’ of wider marriage law. The Commission reported in December 2015, and recognised the unfairness of the lack of recognition of humanist marriage. However, the Government still has not enacted legal recognition, and in 2018 instead asked the Law Commission to conduct a further review.
  • In 2017, we took a case in Northern Ireland with two of our members to allow them to have a legally recognised humanist marriage. They won their case the following summer and the first legally recognised marriages began from that August.
  • In 2018, through the efforts of Humanists UK patron Louise Doublet and after years of campaigning by Humanists UK, humanist marriage gained legal recognition in Jersey. The first marriages took place in 2019.
  • In 2018, the All-Party Parliamentary Humanist Group conducted an inquiry into humanist marriage in England and Wales and the issues preventing the Government giving it legal recognition. It concluded that ‘the human rights case for such reform is overwhelming. Given these facts it is far past time the Government enacts legal recognition. We can see no reason for continuing delay.’ We have met repeatedly with Secretaries of State and other Government ministers about the need for a change in the law in England and Wales, and will continue to do so until humanist marriages are legally recognised.
  • In 2019 we published a poll showing there is strong public support for legal recognition in England and Wales, with 69% in favour and just 12% opposed. A majority of every religion and belief is in favour. Indeed, religious groups are not opposed to legal recognition of humanist marriage: the Church of England in particular has told us, ‘it can be beneficial for a couple if their wedding is presided over by a celebrant who shares their faith or beliefs and there should be no reason why couples who espouse their belief system should not benefit from that provision just as Christians and others do.’
  • In 2019 we also published research from Scotland showing that couples married in a humanist ceremony there are almost four times less likely to divorce compared with all other types of marriages. This, we said, further pointed to the desirability of legal recognition of humanist marriages.
  • In 2020 we supported six couples in taking a court case against the UK Government over this matter. The case was heard before the High Court and judgment handed down in July. The High Court ruled that the failure to grant legal recognition to humanist marriages does amount to discrimination, but did not find a formal human rights breach against the Government in light of its ongoing review of marriage law. We have welcomed this judgment as meaning that legal recognition should now be a matter of ‘when’, rather than ‘if’, but the couples are considering whether to appeal on the human rights breach question.
  • In 2020 the Guernsey States Assembly voted in favour of bringing about legal recognition of humanist marriages after a consultation showed 94% in favour. The new law came into effect in 2021, with the first humanist celebrant gaining accreditation.
  • In 2020 a Bill to bring about the legal recognition of humanist marriages was introduced to the House of Commons by Rehman Chisti MP, the Prime Minister’s former Special Envoy on Freedom of Religion or Belief. The Bill was sponsored by fellow Conservative MP Crispin Blunt, Labour MPs Angela Eagle, Steve McCabe, Jeff Smith, and Rachel Hopkins, and Liberal Democrat MPs Wera Hobhouse and Daisy Cooper.
  • In 2021 the Welsh Government confirmed its support for the immediate legal recognition of humanist marriages, calling on the UK Government to either resolve the issue or devolve it to Wales.
  • In 2022 we organised a joint letter signed by 53 cross-party MPs and peers, calling on the Government to immediately legally recognise humanist marriages. This followed the Government’s decision to extend legal recognition to outdoor civil and religious marriages, contradicting its stated position that it will wait until the outcome of the Law Commission’s review of marriage law before conducting any piecemeal reform.
  • In 2022 we supported a Westminster Hall debate on the legal recognition of humanist marriages, backed by 26 cross-party MPs.
  • In 2022, the Law Commission published its review of weddings law. This marked the end of nine years’ worth of reviews into humanist marriages. The Law Commission’s project does not pass judgement on whether the Government should legally recognise humanist marriages. However, given the High Court’s ruling, there are now no excuses for the Government not to do so.

Regardless of whether you live in a place where humanist marriages have legal recognition, our network of over 400 highly trained and accredited celebrants continue to conduct ceremonies.

Support the campaign

Write to your MP explaining that the existing marriage laws discriminate against humanists, and asking them to raise the matter with Ministers. Please copy any replies you get to Humanists UK.

You could consider training as a Humanists UK accredited wedding celebrant. More details can be found on the Humanist Ceremonies website.

You can support Humanists UK by becoming a member. That helps in itself, and you can help even more by supporting our campaigns in the ways suggested above. But campaigns also cost money – quite a lot of money – and we also need financial support. You can make a donation to Humanists UK.


How to get a humanist wedding

Wouldn’t it be great to start your married life with a ceremony that really means something? To tell your friends and family what your relationship means to you, and why you are choosing to get married?

Many of us who aren’t religious are looking for a wedding that is more flexible and personal than a civil or register office ceremony.

A humanist, non-religious wedding ceremony gives you the opportunity to marry where you want, when you want and how you want. They’re available throughout the UK and crown dependencies (although cannot confer legal recognition in England, Wales, and the Isle of Man – hence this campaign). You can find out more on the Humanist Ceremonies website.