In June, the Belfast Court of Appeal ruled that humanist marriages must be legally recognised in Northern Ireland. This weekend, the first two legal marriages to follow that ruling will occur.
On Saturday, Emma Taylor and Paul Malone will be getting married at Queen’s University Belfast, while on Sunday, Alanna McCaffrey and Ronan Johnson will be getting married in County Fermanagh. Their celebrants are Stewart Holden and Lara Harris, both trained and accredited by Humanists UK. Humanists UK and its section Northern Ireland Humanists have expressed their delight at the news and congratulations to the couples.
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, and conducted by a celebrant who shares their beliefs and values.
The only previous legal humanist marriage to have taken place in Northern Ireland before this weekend was when the couple who took the court case, Laura Lacole and Eunan O’Kane, got married last summer. They were supported in taking their case by Humanists UK. Their marriage followed the High Court ruling in their favour last year, but no further couples were allowed to have humanist marriages while the Court of Appeal considered an appeal to the decision. Now that that appeal has concluded in their favour as well, other couples are at last able to start also having humanist marriages.
Emma Taylor and Paul Malone, who are getting married on Saturday, commented, ‘We’re tremendously excited to be one of the first couples to be having a legal humanist marriage. When we started planning our wedding, we knew we wanted something highly personal that is all about who we are as a couple, and that’s what humanist marriages offer. We think that many people in Northern Ireland will have the same view, so we’re very pleased that the law is changing.’
Alanna McCaffrey and Ronan Johnson, who are getting married on Sunday, commented, ‘We’re a non-religious couple and we want a very personalised and meaningful ceremony for our marriage. That’s why we want a humanist one – because you can customise it to suit yourself. It seemed the most meaningful option for us, and we’re delighted that such ceremonies will now be legally recognised.’
Laura Lacole, who took the legal case, commented, ‘Congratulations to Paul and Emma and to Alanna and Ronan on their impending nuptials, and to the many other couples who will follow them. In taking our legal case, we weren’t simply looking to change the law for our own wedding, but we wanted to change the law for others too. Knowing that come this weekend these couples will have a wedding ceremony that reflects precisely who they are as a couple, just as we did, makes us truly jubilant. It’s a huge progressive reform and I hope this helps pave the way for further change in Northern Ireland.’
Richy Thompson, Director of Public Affairs and Policy at Humanists UK, commented, ‘We’re delighted that the first humanist marriages following the Court ruling are now taking place, and many congratulations to the couples involved. Any couple wishing to have a humanist ceremony is now able to contact one of our trained and accredited celebrants who can then seek authorisation to perform the legal marriage, which will be fully bespoke and personal just to them.
‘With this change in the law, England and Wales is the only part of Britain and Ireland where humanist marriage is not legally recognised. The UK Government must now surely recognise how popular such ceremonies have been everywhere they have become legal. It must recognise the consequentially urgent need to extend such recognition to England and Wales as well.’
What’s happening in more detail
Recognition of humanist marriages follows on from a legal case taken by Laura Lacole and Eunan O’Kane, who hoped to secure a change in the law for their marriage last year. The couple succeeded at the High Court, and were able to have their legal humanist marriage in June 2017, but the decision was stayed for all other couples by the Court of Appeal, pending an appeal by the Northern Ireland Government. This resulted in a further court ruling this June which has opened the way for other couples to also have humanist marriages. The marriages taking place this weekend are the first since that ruling – the first bar Laura and Eunan’s last summer.
Couples wishing to have a legal humanist marriage can now do so with a celebrant trained and accredited by Humanists UK. Such couples simply need to state on their notice of marriage form that they will be using a humanist celebrant, and the celebrant needs to fill in a temporary authorisation form.
Recognition around the UK, Ireland, and crown dependencies
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 almost 7,000 in 2017 – some 20% of the total, meaning Humanist Society Scotland now provides more marriage ceremonies than any other religion or belief group. In the Republic of Ireland, humanist marriages gained legal recognition in 2012. In 2017 around eight percent of legal marriages were humanist, placing the Humanist Association of Ireland only behind the Catholic Church and civil marriages.
In Jersey, a new law giving recognition to humanist marriages came into force on 1 July, with the first humanist celebrants expected to be approved by the state in the next few months. Guernsey is currently consulting on also extending recognition.
In England and Wales, over 1,000 couples a year already have non-legal humanist wedding ceremonies, but such ceremonies cannot at present carry legal recognition, without the couple also going through the time and expense of having a civil marriage as well. Humanists UK believes this is unfair, and since religious marriages do carry such recognition, discriminatory. But the recognition in Northern Ireland, in Jersey, and the ongoing proposals in Guernsey, surely means that the prospects of legal recognition in England and Wales, too, have now become much more likely. 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. Now Humanists UK is asking the Government to urgently do so.
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 07918 975795.
Media can request interviews with Emma Taylor, Paul Malone, or Laura Lacole by contacting Boyd Sleator to arrange a time.
The couples getting married this weekend have made these images available for use by media:
Composite image of both couples: https://humanism.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2018-08-21-LW-v1-Happy-couples-NI-marriages.png
Emma and Paul, image 1: https://humanism.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/IMG_1482.jpeg
Emma and Paul, image 2: https://humanism.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/IMG_1490.jpeg
Alanna and Ronan: https://humanism.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/IMG-20180820-WA0013.jpg
Read the previous news item, on success at the Court of Appeal: https://humanism.org.uk/2018/06/28/victory-court-of-appeal-in-belfast-rules-humanist-marriage-must-be-legally-recognised/
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.
Northern Ireland Humanists is a part of Humanists UK, working with the Humanist Association of Ireland.