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No more ‘separate but equal’ in marriage law’: BHA comments on proposals for reform

Responding to a government announcement that there is to be a public consultation on reforming the laws on marriage and civil partnerships, the British Humanist Association (BHA) has described it as a new opportunity for real equality for humanists and for same-sex couples in law. However, the BHA has cautioned that the detail of the consultation will be important, and has warned against the risk of continuing to legitimise separate systems for gay and straight couples. 

In 2010, an amendment by Lord Alli to the Equality Act was passed which would make lawful for the first time having civil partnership ceremonies in places of worship, while at the same time not placing an obligation on religious organisations to host civil partnerships. The change amends the Civil Partnerships Act 2005 and does not affect marriage law. However, the Lord Alli amendment is not straight-forward and requires consultation on how that would work. For example, even if a civil partnership is held in a place of worship, it is not clear whether there could be provision to allow religious language or prayers into the ceremony, and it is not clear whether registrars would be required (it would be unlawful at the moment) to take part in a religious elements of the ceremony. The government has announced that it will begin a consultation in the next week or two.

As the national charity working on behalf of non-religious people in the UK, being at the forefront of campaigning for marriage equality, and as the leading provider of humanist marriages and partnership ceremonies in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, the British Humanist Association (BHA) was involved by the Government Equalities Office (GEO) in the pre-consultation stages. Our position is that: a) the marriage law should be reformed to give legal recognition to humanist marriage in England and Wales as there is in Scotland; and b) the marriage law should be reformed to make same-sex marriage – either religious, civil or humanist – lawful.

BHA Head of Public Affairs Naomi Phillips explained, ‘We have every sympathy with religious and with non-religious same-sex couples who wish to have their partnership ceremonies legally solemnised in the religious or humanist manner of their choice. However, allowing civil partnerships in some places of worship simply does not equate to having equality between gay and straight couples in law.

‘We believe that the appropriate way to realise equality is through amending the marriage law to legalise gay marriage, and we think that on grounds of principle this is still an important fight to be won. We cannot see any legitimate reason to have two separate systems depending on if you are in a same-sex or in a heterosexual couple. In this case, we do not accept the ‘different but equal’ line.’

The issue of the continuing discrimination against non-religious people in marriage law was raised in a debate in parliament just last week, and that is a subject that the BHA has already met with a government minister to discuss. The BHA believes that permitting ‘religious’ civil partnerships rather than reforming the marriage law may actually create a new inequality for non-religious people, because gay couples wishing to have legal recognition of their humanist partnership ceremonies would not be able to do so, unlike gay couples wishing to have a religious ceremony.

Ms Phillips continued, ‘The upcoming consultation represents a real opportunity to get it right, to have proper equality between gay and straight couples and between humanists and religious people. We will be working with a wide range of religious and secular groups, gay rights groups, human rights activists and people from across the political spectrum in order that the best outcome is achieved: an outcome of true equality and an end to segregation in the legal system on grounds of sexual orientation and belief.’ 


For further comment, detail or information, contact Naomi Phillips on 020 7079 3585.

Read the BHA’s briefing on Marriage: humanist marriage, same-sex marriage and ‘religious’ civil partnerships.

Lord Alli’s amendment to the Equality Act 2010.

Hansard from 2nd March with debate on Lord Alli’s amendment, including concerns about the practical implementation of the amendment.

The British Humanist Association (BHA) is the national charity representing and supporting the non-religious and campaigning for an end to religious privilege and discrimination. It is the largest organisation in the UK campaigning for a secular state.

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