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Couples head to High Court over legal recognition of humanist marriages in England and Wales

Finbar Graham and Jennifer McCalmont are two of the six couples taking the case.

Six couples are at the High Court today to take a landmark challenge over the legal recognition of humanist marriages in England and Wales. Their case is being supported by Humanists UK.

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 with religious weddings across the UK and humanist weddings in Scotland and Northern Ireland. 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.

The hearing in the case would have taken place in the Royal Courts of Justice, but the pandemic means that it is instead now happening virtually. It will run from 7-8 July and while a decision could be returned by the judge as soon as the hearing ends, this is not expected.

Humanists UK President Alice Roberts welcomed the case: ‘A humanist marriage is something so incredibly special – a ceremony where the couple decides on the meanings, beliefs and values they feel important – rather than having to shoehorn themselves into some other template that society is forcing on them. It represents that freedom of belief that is a fundamental human right.

‘I find it so extraordinary that while humanist marriages are legally recognised in Scotland and Northern Ireland, they’re not in England and Wales. This is about human rights. This is about non-religious people being treated equally in our society. And this case is about six couples who dearly and desperately want their weddings to be perfect for them. I hope they’re successful and that sense, equality, and joy prevail, for their sake and many others to come. My love and support goes out to the brave couples taking this case.’

Humanists UK Chief Executive Andrew Copson commented: ‘Legal recognition of humanist marriages has long been an issue at the top of Humanists UK’s agenda with the Government for a decade now, but over that decade the issue has been repeatedly batted away to one review and then another and now another. This has gone on for far too long. A change in the law is something that has only become all the more urgent in light of the coronavirus pandemic and the backlog of demand.’

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.’

More information about the couples, including quotes, and further endorsements from parliamentarians can be found in the press release announcing the case. Below you can find: (a) more information about humanist weddings, including around the British Isles; (b) more about evidence in the case; and (c) further notes.

(a) More about humanist weddings

YouGov polling shows almost 30% of the population hold humanist beliefs and 7% primarily identify as humanists. 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.

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.

(b) 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.

(c) 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.

More information about the couples, including quotes, and further endorsements from parliamentarians can be found in the press release announcing the case. Couples are also available to interview on request through Richy Thompson (contact details above).

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: https://humanism.org.uk/campaigns/human-rights-and-equality/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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