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Legal recognition of humanist marriages blocked in Commons

A proposal in the House of Commons to give legal recognition to humanist marriages in England and Wales has been halted through the last minute intervention of the Attorney General. The proposal had the support of MPs from all three parties and was publicly opposed only by the Church of England and Conservatives in government. In spite of this, the Government threatened to make a declaration that the Marriage Bill was incompatible with human rights if the proposal passed as an amendment. This effectively made it impossible for MPs supporting the Bill to vote for the amendment and so it was withdrawn.

Many MPs speaking in the debate expressed their bewilderment at the eleventh-hour intervention of the Attorney General, which was not backed up by any written evidence and contained arguments that had never been made before. This was in spite of an amendment to recognise humanist marriages being first tabled in February, being extensively discussed at previous stages of the Bill, and being the subject of extensive meetings with the Government held by Labour and Liberal Democrat MPs and representatives of the British Humanist Association (BHA) where a large number of Government concerns were discussed and addressed.

The Government has now promised Labour and the Liberal Democrats – both of which now have formal positions in favour of legal recognition for humanist marriages – that they will publish in a comprehensive format the legal objections they have. The proposal for legal recognition for humanist marriages will return in the House of Lords in a revised version that will take these concerns into account.

Andrew Copson, BHA Chief Executive commented, ‘We believe there was a majority in the House of Commons today for the legal recognition of humanist marriages and so we are naturally disappointed that a vote did not occur and the democratic processes that would have approved this popular proposal did not run their course. Nonetheless, we understand that – in the face of the extraordinary intervention by the Attorney General – MPs supporting same-sex marriage were left with very little choice.

‘The arguments that we heard from both the Government and the representative of the Church of England in the House of Commons have all been refuted and it was particularly shocking that the Government raised today issues that had never been raised before during a long process of engagement. We are sure that all the arguments which the Government has now committed to publish can be addressed before the amendment is brought back in the Lords.

‘In the context of current marriage law, giving legal recognition to humanist marriages is not controversial, would meet a  genuine public desire, and would have a negative effect on absolutely no one in society. It would only go on to improve the married lives and happiness of thousands of couples who wish to have a humanist marriage.

‘It’s completely baffling to us that the Government wants to avoid an increase in the number of couples getting married in England and Wales and that it is willing to continue to stand in the way of non-religious couples who only want the same choice that non-religious couples already have in Scotland and which religious couples have – a civil ceremony or a ceremony that reflects their deepest beliefs, conducted by a person who shares those beliefs. We also have absolutely no idea why the Church of England is opposing this change, and would ask them to respect the wishes of humanists in this important area of life just as the law respects the wishes of their members.’

Notes

For further comment or information contact Pavan Dhaliwal, Head of Public Affairs at pavan@humanism.org.uk or on 0773 843 5059.

As well as hundreds of marriages, the BHA conducts many thousands of funerals every year.  All the ceremonies are conducted by trained and accredited celebrants subject to strict quality assurance processes and 97% of clients give these ceremonies feedback of 5/5.

The proposal was made as an amendment to the Bill by the Labour MPs Kate Green, Chris Bryant, and Kelvin Hopkins, the Liberal Democrat MPs Stephen Gilbert, Dr Julian Huppert, and Stephen Williams, and the Conservative Mike Weatherley MP.

The British Humanist Association is the national charity working on behalf of non-religious people who seek to live ethical and fulfilling lives on the basis of reason and humanity. It promotes a secular state and equal treatment in law and policy of everyone, regardless of religion or belief.

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