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New Lords bill proposes legal recognition of humanist marriages

A new bill that proposes legal recognition of humanist marriages in England and Wales has come ninth in the private members’ bill ballot today. The Bill is being proposed by Baroness Meacher.

The bill proposes to give legal recognition to marriages by Humanists UK celebrants within three months of passage. Crossbench peer Baroness Meacher previously led amendments to the 2013 Marriage Act in support of the same outcome.

In England and Wales, humanist marriages are not legally recognised, despite the law required to do so being on the statue books for more than six years. During that time the Government has failed to enact it. This proposed bill is not the first time that peers have intervened on humanist marriage, with large cross-party support being heard in Parliament last year.

Many peers and MPs support legal recognition of humanist marriage in England and Wales, accepting the human rights arguments that humanists should be allowed to have a legally recognised marriage in line with their beliefs, just as religious people are able to. Humanist marriages are now legally recognised in Scotland, Northern Ireland, and Jersey, as well as in neighbouring countries like the Republic of Ireland, with Guernsey currently in the process of extending legal recognition too.

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 of them has overwhelming public support, including across all major religious and non-religious groups.

If the bill is given sufficient support in the House of Lords and supported by an MP, it will then be debated in the House of Commons and may become law.

Humanists UK Director of Public Affairs and Policy at Humanists UK Richy Thompson said: ‘Now is surely the time for urgent reform on humanist marriages to allow non-religious couples in England and Wales the right to a legally recognised marriage in line with their beliefs. Religious couples have long held these rights and across the UK, Europe, and the rest of the world, many countries now allow couples to have a legally binding humanist marriage. We welcome the introduction of this Bill and hope to see it lead to a change in the law.’

Humanist marriages around the UK, Ireland, and crown dependencies

Humanist marriages have long been legally recognised in Scotland and the Republic of Ireland, and have had a transformative effect in both countries. They gained legal recognition in Scotland in 2005, and have risen in number from 85 in the first year to over 6,000 in 2018 – some 20% of the total. Humanist Society Scotland provides more marriage ceremonies than the Church of Scotland or any other religion or belief group, and research shows that humanist marriages there are also least likely to end in divorce. In the Republic of Ireland, humanist marriages gained legal recognition in 2012. In 2018 some nine 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 2018, 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 2018, with the first ones happening in 2019, and Guernsey is currently considering 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 humanist marriages have been on the statute books in England and Wales, but the UK Government hasn’t chosen to enact the relevant statute. The Government recently launched a review of the law around marriage venues in England and Wales. But on humanist marriages, the review ‘will not be making recommendations on whether as a matter of policy new groups [i.e. humanists] should be allowed to conduct legally binding weddings, which is a decision for Government.’ So the Government still needs to take a view. Instead Humanists UK is asking the Government to urgently support legal recognition.

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For further comment or information, please contact Humanists UK press manager Casey-Ann Seaniger at casey@humanism.org.uk or phone 020 7324 3078 or 07393 344293.

Read more about Humanists UK’s campaigns around marriage laws.

Humanists UK is the national charity working on behalf of non-religious people. Powered by over 85,000 members and supporters, we advance free thinking and promote humanism to create a tolerant society where rational thinking and kindness prevail. We provide ceremonies, pastoral care, education, and support services benefitting over a million people every year and our campaigns advance humanist thinking on ethical issues, human rights, and equal treatment for all.

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