Join Donate

Six couples in human rights case for legal recognition of humanist marriages in England and Wales

Lucy Penny and Dan Bradley are amongst the claimants.

Six couples are going to the High Court on 7-8 July to take a landmark challenge over the legal recognition of humanist marriages in England and Wales. Their case is being supported by Humanists UK, which has campaigned for legal recognition of humanist marriage for many decades.

The humanist couples are taking the case to try to compel the UK Government to change the law to recognise humanist weddings as legally recognised marriages, as is the case for humanist weddings in Scotland and Northern Ireland and for religious weddings across the UK. Their lawyers will argue that the current law discriminates against them because of their humanist beliefs and is therefore incompatible with human rights legislation, which precludes such discrimination.

Parliament gave the Government the power to give legal recognition to humanist marriages in 2013 but no Government has used it. In the time since then, over 6,000 couples have been denied legal recognition for their humanist wedding, either having to go to a state registrar for an unwanted second ceremony in order to gain legal recognition, or not be legally married.

The six couples challenging this discrimination lodged their case at the High Court in November last year. Permission for the case to be heard was granted by the Court on 2 March, with the full hearing due to happen on 7-8 July. After permission was granted, the claimants offered to negotiate with the Government over possibly settling the case, particularly in light of the coronavirus pandemic, but this offer was refused. It is now hoped that the case will lead to a change in the law in time to help deal with the huge backlog of demand for marriage services that is now occurring due to the pandemic.

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, over 1,000 couples a year already have a humanist wedding without legal recognition. They all must have 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 to financial strain, and distress over the state failing to recognise their humanist wedding as their ‘real’ one.

Humanists UK Chief Executive Andrew Copson commented: ‘Couples who have humanist weddings see that day as the epitome of their love and commitment to each other, and all they want is the same legal recognition for that as is given to every religious person in our country. We have tried for decades to address this glaring double standard. Government has dragged its heels and that’s why it’s been left to these couples to bring this case. As more and more non-religious couples choose to have humanist weddings, we need a law that works for all people who want to marry and we hope this case will lead to reform.’

The claimants are being represented by Ciaran Moynagh of Phoenix Law, Caoilfhionn Gallagher QC of Doughty Street Chambers, and Steve McQuitty BL of the Bar Library of Northern Ireland. Humanists UK is supporting them in bringing the claim.

Ciaran Moynagh, solicitor at law firm Phoenix Law, said: ‘The time for asking to be accommodated is over. The Courts are now the only appropriate and realistic method of moving this issue on. Following a successful case in Northern Ireland momentum is on our side and I believe couples who look forward to a legally recognised humanist ceremony should take great heart and hope from that.’

Below are: (a) quotes from politicians; (b) more information about the couples, including quotes and images; (c) more information about humanist weddings; and (d) further notes.

(a) Quotes from politicians

Conservative MP Crispin Blunt, who is the Chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Humanist Group, commented: ‘The Government has been considering bringing about legal recognition of humanist marriages for some seven years now, over three different reviews. In this context it is understandable that these six couples have given up waiting and decided to resort to legal action. Further, it has never been more urgent than it is now to extend recognition, since the coronavirus pandemic means that there is a long backlog of demand for civil marriages. Stopping people from having to have both a humanist wedding and an unwanted civil marriage in order to gain legal recognition is a clear way to unclog that backlog.’

Janet Daby MP, the Shadow Minister responsible for faith and belief, commented: ‘Parliament voted to give the Government the power to give legal recognition to humanist marriages in 2013 but we have seen dither and delay from successive Tory Prime Ministers. It’s time for the Government to recognise the thousands of humanists across the country who are simply asking for a legally recognised wedding that is reflective of their beliefs and values. The Labour Party supports the legal recognition of humanist marriages and a Labour Government will act to support the thousands of couples who wish to marry with a humanist celebration.’

Liberal Democrat Equalities spokesperson Christine Jardine MP said: ‘Couples shouldn’t have to go to court to fight for the right to get married the way they choose. Instead of wasting taxpayers’ money fighting this case, the Government should just make this simple but important change. The Liberal Democrats are proud of our record as champions of equal rights. That is why we have long called for legal recognition of humanist marriages and will keep calling for this.’

Green Party Co-Leader Siân Berry commented, ‘We’ve supported legal recognition of humanist marriages for a long time and it’s been disappointing to see the Government repeatedly delay bringing that about. England and Wales are now embarrassingly far behind Scotland and Ireland in affording humanists the same rights as religious people. Any further delay will mean thousands more couples missing out on the chance to have the form of legally recognised marriage that they want.’

Plaid Cymru also has party policy in favour of legal recognition of humanist marriages, while the SNP Government strengthened the law on humanist marriages in Scotland in 2014.

(b) Information about the couples and quotes

Kate Harrison and Christopher Sanderson.

Kate Harrison and Christopher Sanderson from Lincolnshire have been together for 14 years. They’re both retired from their primary careers, Kate from being a nurse and Christopher from being a project manager in the water industry. Kate is also a long-standing humanist celebrant and trained humanist pastoral carer. They want to get married in a humanist ceremony which embraces their deeply held humanist beliefs. They say they will not get married until humanist marriages are legally recognised.

Kate Harrison and Christopher Sanderson commented: ‘We believe that the act of getting married is profoundly personal and having a humanist ceremony is central to our identities as humanists. It is highly discriminatory that if you have a religion you can get married in a way of your choosing which is compatible with your beliefs, but if you are non-religious, the state has a complete monopoly over how you get married.

‘With us now both in our sixties, we feel it is increasingly important to legally reflect our lasting commitment to one another and that means a humanist marriage. We are very happy to be taking a case that will help to create a fairer law for people like us.’

Victoria Hosegood and Charli Janeway from Kent planned to get married in a humanist ceremony in September this year, but have delayed it until September next year because of the pandemic. Victoria works in heritage conservation for the council and Charli works in commercial development for the charity Parentkind, which supports PTAs and helps parents get more involved in their children’s education. They want to get married in Somerset, close to where Victoria grew up. They’re working with humanist celebrant Kevin Murphy.

Charli Janeway and Victoria Hosegood commented: ‘Our marriage is a very significant life event for us and the humanist ceremony we intend to have is the most important part of our day. It reflects our outlook on the world, how we want to live our lives, and how we treat not only each other but the rest of society. Marriage laws need to reflect the make-up of modern-day society, including the growing numbers of humanists, which is why we think this case is so important.’

Jennifer McCalmont and Finbar Graham from Carrickfergus, Northern Ireland, plan to marry in a humanist ceremony in late July on the beach in Devon where they first went on holiday together, and near where Jenny’s parents live. Jenny is a civil servant and Finbar is a landscape gardener. In Northern Ireland, where they live, humanist marriages are already legally recognised, so they could simply have a humanist ceremony there, but they want their wedding ceremony in Devon because it is the most meaningful location for them. Being able to do that is intrinsic to humanist ceremonies, which are all about creating a ceremony that best reflects who the couple is. They’re also working with celebrant Kevin Murphy.

Jennifer McCalmont and Finbar Graham commented: ‘Humanism resonates with us as it is concerned with the relationships humans have with each other and focuses on being caring, kind, and making the most of the one life we have. We come from two separate religious backgrounds which neither of us practices and so we didn’t want to be hypocritical in having a religious ceremony.

‘Living in Northern Ireland we could simply have a legally recognised humanist marriage here but Northam Beach in Devon is special to us as it was the first place we holidayed together. We fell in love with the beach and we want it to be part of our special day. Not being able to have the ceremony we want will undoubtedly undermine the significance of the day and devalue our beliefs. The current law discriminates against us as humanists.’

Capella Rew and Daniel Meakin from Somerset have had their humanist wedding ceremony since the start of legal proceedings, although they have not had a legally recognised marriage so they are not yet married in the eyes of the law. They are complaining about the discrimination they experienced, as much as discrimination they might face. Capella works in administration and Daniel is a security officer. They had their humanist wedding with celebrant Josie Lamb.

Capella Rew and Daniel Meakin commented: ‘The humanist approach to life is the one that best reflects our beliefs and values. This meant we wanted to have our marriage ceremony in a natural setting and at a place that held particular significance to us. We also wanted the freedom to create a ceremony that was personal and meaningful to us. Our wedding took place in the village where Capella grew up and we chose to plant a tree in the community orchard as a symbol of our union rather than exchange rings. The current law is unfair as in order to formalise our union we also have to arrange a civil ceremony and this has a further financial impact on us that many other couples getting married do not have to consider.’

Lucy Penny and Dan Bradley from St Helens have had both a humanist wedding ceremony and civil marriage ceremony since the start of legal proceedings. They didn’t want to have the civil marriage ceremony but felt they had no choice to gain legal recognition. They will complain about the discrimination they experienced, rather than discrimination they might face. Lucy is a secondary school teacher and Dan works for a local University. Lucy and Dan have their humanist wedding with celebrant Ben Jewell.

Lucy Penny and Dan Bradley commented: ‘Since the start of proceedings in this case, we’ve already had a humanist wedding ceremony as well as a civil marriage because we were unable to secure legal recognition for humanist marriages before our wedding date. However, we are now taking part in the case in the hope we can change the law for other couples in the future.

‘We see our humanist ceremony as our real ceremony, as did our family and friends, and it’s our humanist wedding that reflected our values and beliefs. It’s a shame the Government doesn’t recognise that as our real ceremony, when they would have done if we were religious.’

(c) About humanist weddings and marriages

YouGov polling shows almost 30% of the population hold humanist beliefs and 7% primarily identify as humanists. Humanist marriages gained legal recognition in Scotland in 2005 and in 2019 there were more humanist than Christian marriages for the first time (23% of the total). They also gained recognition in the Republic of Ireland in 2012 and Northern Ireland in 2018.

69% of the public support legal recognition of humanist marriages in England and Wales but the Government still hasn’t given legal recognition despite Parliament voting in 2013 to give it the power to do so. It has been on the statute books since but the Government hasn’t enacted that power. Figures show that (non-legally recognised) humanist wedding ceremonies in England and Wales have increased by a massive 266% over the last decade, bucking the trend of a decline in other types of marriage. Official 2018 statistics show that humanist marriages in Scotland are the least likely to end in divorce.

(d) Further 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 07815 589636.

The claimants in the case have made the following images available for use by media:

Read more about Humanists UK’s campaign for legal recognition of 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.

Evidence in the case

Lawyers have provided evidence from Ahmed Shaheed, the UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief. He says that the lack of legal recognition in England and Wales is unlawful. Mr Shaheed told Humanists UK: ‘It is increasingly unusual internationally for liberal democracies to not give legal recognition to humanist marriages.’ The only general exception is if they follow a French-style system of not allowing religious marriages either.

Prominent experts in religion and religious figures including Linda Woodhead, Distinguished Professor of Religion and Society at Lancaster University; Rabbi Dr Jonathan Romain; Tina Beattie, Professor of Catholic Studies at the University of Roehampton; and Michael Booth, Church Government Adviser of the Recording Clerk’s Office of Quakers in Britain, also provide evidence on marriages from the perspective of the religious traditions in which they are experts, where religious people can marry legally in a ceremony conducted by a person who is authorised to conduct a wedding in keeping with the beliefs and conventions of their religion. The evidence they provide shows that there is no good reason for humanist marriages to be treated differently.

Other evidence is provided by Dr Lois Lee, founder of the Nonreligion and Secularity Research Network and Senior Research Fellow at the University of Kent, on the demographics of the non-religious, and on the differences between religious and non-religious worldviews. She explains that humanism is ‘the most widely recognised non-religious worldview in the UK’. Dr Jeaneane Fowler, author of Humanism: Beliefs and Practices, gives evidence on the intrinsic nature of humanist ceremonies to humanism. Humanist Society Scotland Chief Executive Fraser Sutherland provides evidence on the operation and success of legally recognised humanist marriages in Scotland. And Paul Pugh, former Registrar General for England and Wales and humanist celebrant, gives his view on the Government’s approach to legal recognition of humanist marriages around the time of the passage of the Same-Sex Marriage Act and subsequent consultation, as well as the quality of the training Humanist Ceremonies provides.

There is also evidence from Humanists UK Chief Executive Andrew Copson, Director of Community Services Teddy Prout, and Ceremonies Board Chair Zena Birch on humanism, Humanists UK, and the nature of humanist ceremonies.

The position of 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 in 2019 there were more humanist than Christian marriages for the first time (23% of the total). Humanist Society Scotland provides more marriage ceremonies than any other religion or belief group. In the Republic of Ireland, humanist marriages gained legal recognition in 2012. In 2019 around 9% of legally recognised marriages were humanist, placing the Humanist Association of Ireland only behind the Catholic Church and civil marriages.

Humanist marriages gained legal recognition 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 the Guernsey Assembly has passed legislation that from next year will do the same.

Search Humanists UK