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Calls for legally recognised humanist marriages as religious weddings to resume in England

Bekka and Gareth’s clifftop wedding by Grant Lampard.

The Prime Minister has today announced that from 4 July, ‘places of worship [in England] will be able to reopen for prayer and services – including weddings with a maximum of 30 people’. However, the UK Government has said nothing about the resumption of civil marriages.

Humanists UK has long campaigned for legal recognition of humanist marriages in England and Wales, as is the case in the rest of the UK, Jersey, and Ireland. At present, couples wishing to have a humanist wedding ceremony must also have a civil marriage if their marriage is to be legally recognised. Humanists UK is calling for the UK Government to ensure the needs of the non-religious are provided for on an equal basis to those of the religious by extending legal recognition to humanist marriages, and by resuming civil marriages (which are the large majority of marriages in England), both subject of course to strict safeguards.

A humanist wedding is a non-religious ceremony conducted by a humanist celebrant who shares the beliefs and values of the couple. It differs from a civil wedding in that it is entirely personalised and reflective of the humanist beliefs and values of the couple. Humanists UK has provided these ceremonies for many decades In England and Wales, and over 1,000 couples a year already have humanist weddings without legal recognition.

In current law, humanist couples in England and Wales all must supplement their humanist ceremony with a separate civil marriage – usually at a registrar’s office – for their marriage to be legally recognised, even though it is not what they want. Couples must go through formalities twice, leading, amongst other things, to needless time being spent on them by registrars and increased financial strain for couples. No such restrictions apply in Scotland, Northern Ireland, or in the Republic of Ireland.

Humanists UK Chief Executive Andrew Copson commented:

‘The Government must ensure that wedding provision not only is safe but caters equally to the needs of all couples of all religions and beliefs. If the Government is now proposing to allow religious marriages to resume but not other types of marriage, then that would represent a failure to cater to the needs of humanists and other non-religious couples, as well as those religious couples who don’t want a religious wedding.

‘Furthermore, there is inevitably going to be a boom in the number of weddings taking place from when they are permitted again through to the end of next year, as pent-up demand leads to more people getting married. This will place significant strain on registrars providing civil marriages. One easy way to reduce this strain would be to extend legal recognition to humanist marriages, which would increase the number of officiants able to conduct legally recognised marriages and mean that those couples who want a humanist marriage are able to have one without also having to have a civil marriage. Such a move would be very popular, would make the system fairer for non-religious couples, and would be good for the economy by boosting the wider wedding industry. It is very much something the Prime Minister should consider as a matter of urgency.’

More about humanist marriages

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 in 2018, 6,117 humanist marriages took place (22% of the total). Humanist Society Scotland provides more marriage ceremonies than any other religion or belief group. Official 2019 statistics show that humanist marriages in Scotland are the least likely to end in divorce. In the Republic of Ireland, humanist marriages gained legal recognition in 2012. In 2019 around 9% of legal marriages were humanist, placing the Humanist Association of Ireland only behind the Catholic Church and civil marriages.

Humanist marriages became legal in Northern Ireland in 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 last year and Guernsey is in the process of doing the same.

In England and Wales, over 1,000 couples a year already have a humanist wedding ceremony, a massive 266% over the last decade, bucking the trend of a decline in other types of marriage. But such ceremonies do not carry legal recognition without the couple also having a civil marriage as well. Humanists UK believes this is unfair, and since religious marriages do carry such recognition, discriminatory. 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. 69% of the public support legal recognition.

Notes:

For further comment or information, please contact Humanists UK Director of Public Affairs and Policy Richy Thompson at press@humanism.org.uk or phone 020 7324 3072 or 07534 248 596.

Read more about our work on humanist marriages.

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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