Join Donate

Northern Ireland Court of Appeal holds final hearing in humanist marriage case

Eunan and Laura on their wedding day.

The Northern Ireland Court of Appeal has held what is expected to be the final of its four hearings as to whether to extend legal recognition to humanist marriages. The hearing, which took place on Monday, follows on from Northern Ireland Humanists patrons Laura Lacole and Eunan O’Kane seeking to have their humanist wedding ceremony legally recognised. They were allowed to do just that in June, but the decision before the Court is now whether to let other couples do likewise.

History of the case

In June, the High Court ruled that the lack of legal recognition to humanist marriages in Northern Ireland breaks human rights law, by privileging religious believers (who can have legal marriages) over humanists. The ruling followed a claim taken by humanists Laura, co-founder of Atheist NI and public speaker, and Eunan, a Leeds United and Republic of Ireland midfielder, who wanted to have a humanist marriage. Humanists UK has been supporting the couple in their claim.

That decision was subsequently appealed by the Attorney General to the Court of Appeal, and the Department of Finance then followed also. The Court initially issued a stay on the decision, albeit while uniquely letting Laura and Eunan have their legal humanist wedding ceremony. Laura and Eunan’s wedding ceremony took place on 22 June. The Court then further stayed the decision in September, to ask the parties to negotiate a compromise solution, but although Humanists UK entered these negotiations in good faith, this didn’t prove possible. So today the Court of Appeal concluded its hearing, to consider whether other couples should also be allowed to have legal humanist marriages.

Laura Lacole commented, ‘Since winning our High Court case in June, giving my now husband and I legal recognition for our humanist marriage (which took place two days later) and changing the law to recognise non religious beliefs giving countless others the same opportunity; it’s not been smooth sailing. Now, after many days spent in the Court of Appeal, yesterday is thankfully the last. We have a reserved judgment, so in the coming weeks we will finally know whether others can have a legally recognised humanist ceremony. There are so many other people in this country who want and should rightfully have the same opportunity granted to us.’

Humanists UK Chief Executive Andrew Copson commented, ‘We’ve been contacted by many other couples who want to have a legal humanist marriage, and are eagerly awaiting the outcome of the Court of Appeal’s decision. With humanist marriages now legal in Scotland, the Republic of Ireland, and soon in Jersey, we very much hope that the court rules in Laura and Eunan’s favour. This is a simple matter of fairness – of treating humanists equally to religious people. That’s all we’re asking for.’

About humanist weddings

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.

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 in England and Wales if it wishes, but hasn’t chosen to use this power yet.

Notes

For further comment or information, please contact Humanists UK Director of Public Affairs and Policy Richy Thompson on richy@humanism.org.uk or 0781 55 89 636, or Northern Ireland Humanists Coordinator Boyd Sleator on boyd.sleator@nihumanists.org or on 07918 975795.

Laura Lacole is also available for interviews, which can be arranged through Richy.

Laura and Eunan have today released an image from their wedding which media are free to use: https://humanism.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/Eunan-Laura-OKane.jpg

Press are also free to use further 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 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.

Search Humanists UK