As part of yesterday’s budget, the UK Government has announced reforms to increase choice around ‘how and where couples can marry’ in England and Wales. It has done so by asking the Law Commission to come up with proposals on the matter. It is at present unclear as to whether these proposals might include legal recognition of humanist marriage.
In the budget paper, the UK Government announced: ‘Promoting greater choice of wedding venues – England and Wales have outdated laws about how and where couples can marry. The government has asked the Law Commission to propose options for a simpler and fairer system to give modern couples meaningful choice. This will include looking at reducing unnecessary red tape and lowering the cost of wedding venues for couples.’
Humanists UK Director of Public Affairs and Policy Richy Thompson commented, ‘Regardless of any wider reform agenda around marriage laws that the Government now wishes to undertake, it should immediately move to extend legal recognition to humanist marriages. Such a change would be extremely popular and truly provide non-religious couples with meaningful choice. It would end the current unfairness whereby religious couples can have their religious marriages legally recognised but humanist couples cannot have the same. And it would bring England and Wales in line with the rest of the UK. More than that, it is what the recent human rights case in Northern Ireland suggests that the UK Government is now compelled to do.
‘We have been advocating for this change for many years now and it has already been over five years since the Same-Sex Marriage Act brought humanist marriages into law – with the relevant law only needing to be enacted by the Government. Such a reform cannot come soon enough.’
In May the All Party Parliamentary Humanist Group concluded an inquiry into the subject, in which it called for exactly this change to be made.
A growing trend around the UK, Ireland, and crown dependencies
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.
Humanist marriages have long been legally recognised in Scotland and the Republic of Ireland, and have had a transformative effect in both countries. In Scotland, humanist marriages gained legal recognition in 2005, and have risen in number from 85 in the first year to almost 5,700 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.
More recently humanist marriages became legal in Northern Ireland in August, following a Court of Appeal ruling that concluded that a failure to do so would be a breach of human rights. Jersey also gave legal recognition to humanist marriages in July, with the first ones expected to be performed in due course, and Guernsey is currently consulting on doing the same thing.
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 Ireland, Scotland, Northern Ireland, and Jersey, and the ongoing proposals in Guernsey, surely means that the prospects of legal recognition in England and Wales, too, should 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.
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.