On Monday 11 September, the Court of Appeal will reconvene to conclude its hearing of the ongoing case to secure legal recognition for humanist marriages in Northern Ireland. The case involves humanists Laura Lacole, a model and public speaker, and Eunan O’Kane, a footballer with the Republic of Ireland and Leeds United. The couple, backed by Humanists UK, won their case at the Belfast High Court in June, and had a legal humanist wedding ceremony later that month. But the Government of Northern Ireland is now attempting to prevent any further legal humanist marriages from occurring.
Humanists UK Chief Executive Andrew Copson commented, ‘It was a privilege and a joy to attend Laura and Eunan’s legal humanist marriage and hear them share their vows in a ceremony reflecting their humanist beliefs and their love. The idea that other couples should now be prevented from having that same right and opportunity is reprehensible. Humanist marriages are already legal in Scotland and the Republic of Ireland, and we can’t see why non-religious people in Northern Ireland deserve anything less. We hope this appeal fails, the High Court decision in Laura and Eunan’s favour is allowed to stand, and government officials in Northern Ireland call a halt to their crusade against our equal rights.’
The past few weeks have also seen the release of the latest statistics on the number of marriages by religion or belief in Scotland – the one part of the UK where humanist ceremonies are currently recognised. There were 4,912 humanist marriages in 2016, up from 4,621 the year before – representing over a third of all religious or belief-based marriages. The Church of Scotland performed 3,675 marriages, compared with 4,052 the year before, while the Roman Catholic Church performed 1,346 marriages, compared with 1,438 the year before.
About the case
The case is being taken on human rights grounds, targeting the discriminatory law that means that religious people are able to have legal marriage ceremonies in line with their beliefs, but humanists have not been able to do likewise.
A previous Court of Appeal hearing happened on 19 June, three days before Laura and Eunan’s wedding took place, with the Northern Ireland Government challenging a High Court ruling in the couple’s favour. However, at the 19 June hearing, the Court found a loophole in the law to enable Laura and Eunan to have the humanist ceremony they want, without reaching a final judgment in their case, or setting a precedent for other couples also seeking humanist marriages.
Laura and Eunan’s wedding ceremony took place on 22 June. They had a legal humanist ceremony, the first ever in Northern Ireland, conducted by a Humanists UK celebrant who was authorised by the General Registrar Office through The Marriage (Northern Ireland) Order 2003 to conduct the ceremony. This is not under threat from the further court hearings. However this fact does not prejudice the wider outcome of the case, namely whether the current law discriminates against humanists, and whether other couples can have legal humanist marriages: all of which is to be determined following this further hearing by the Court of Appeal.
Legal recognition has already had a transformative effect on Scottish and Irish society. In Scotland, humanist marriages gained legal recognition in 2005, and have risen in number from 85 in the first year to over 4,900 in 2016, overtaking the Church of Scotland in the process. In the Republic of Ireland, humanist marriages gained legal recognition in 2012. In 2016 around seven percent of legal marriages were humanist, more than four times as many as there were (Protestant) Church of Ireland marriages.
In England and Wales, marriage law is different from in Northern Ireland and Scotland. But as the case was taken on human rights grounds, the underlying principles are very similar, and so this case may have some impact. Since 2013 the UK Government has had the power to extend legal recognition if it wishes, but hasn’t chosen to use this power yet.
For further comment or information, please contact Humanists UK Director of Public Affairs and Policy Richy Thompson on firstname.lastname@example.org or 0781 55 89 636, or Northern Ireland Humanists Coordinator Boyd Sleator on email@example.com or on 07470 395090.
Laura Lacole is also available for interviews, which can be arranged through Richy.
Press are free to use images made available by the couple:
Read the previous news item, on success at the High Court: https://humanism.org.uk/2017/06/09/success-couple-win-challenge-to-lack-of-legal-recognition-of-humanist-marriages-in-northern-ireland/
Read the news item on the outcome of the first Court of Appeal hearing: https://humanism.org.uk/2017/06/19/first-legal-humanist-wedding-ceremony-in-northern-ireland-will-go-ahead-thursday/
Read more about Humanists UK’s campaigns around marriage laws: https://humanism.org.uk/campaigns/human-rights-and-equality/marriage-laws/
At Humanists UK, we advance free thinking and promote humanism to create a tolerant society where rational thinking and kindness prevail. Our work brings non-religious people together to develop their own views, helping people be happier and more fulfilled in the one life we have. Through our ceremonies, education services, and community and campaigning work, we strive to create a fair and equal society for all.
Humanists UK recently changed its name from the British Humanist Association: https://humanism.org.uk/2017/05/22/bha-becomes-humanists-uk/
Northern Ireland Humanists is a part of Humanists UK, working with the Humanist Association of Ireland.