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Government provides specifically for humanist weddings in latest coronavirus regulations

In the latest coronavirus regulations, being debated in the UK Parliament today and coming into force in England tomorrow, the Government has made specific provision for 15 people to attend humanist weddings – the same number as can attend religious and civil marriages. Humanists UK has welcomed the move.

When the previous set of regulations were published on 24 September, Humanists UK was alarmed to discover that there was no provision for humanist weddings, meaning that they would default to the ‘rule of six’. However, after extensive pressure from parliamentarians and others, the Government reversed course, and on 29 September declared that up to 15 could attend humanist weddings after all. It did this through reinterpretation of existing rules to classify humanist weddings as ‘wedding receptions’, and guidance updated to reflect that interpretation – even though humanist weddings are not wedding receptions, in the everyday understanding of the term.

Now, in the new regulations, the Government has made specific provisions for humanist weddings. It has allowed up to 15 to attend a wedding if it is for the purposes of a legally recognised religious or civil marriage, or ‘an alternative wedding ceremony’, which is defined as ‘a ceremony based on a person’s faith or belief’. Humanism is classified as a ‘belief’ in the eyes of the law. These provisions appear in the regulations for all three tiers of alert level – medium, high, and very high. Separate provision is made for up to 15 to attend wedding receptions, but only for the medium and high alert levels.

Welcoming the changes, Humanists UK Chief Executive Andrew Copson commented:

‘We are delighted that the Government has made specific provision for humanist weddings to continue with up to 15 in attendance. We look forward to continuing to work with ministers and officials on coronavirus policy as it develops.’

In July, six couples took a legal case to the High Court over legal recognition of humanist marriages in England and Wales. In that case, the judge ruled that the failure to provide legally recognised humanist marriages means that ‘the present law gives rise to… discrimination’. The fact that the coronavirus regulations now provide for humanist weddings in such a specific way are in part a recognition of the human rights protections that humanist weddings now enjoy.

Notes:

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

Read Humanists UK’s previous statement on humanist weddings and coronavirus regulations.

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, prior to the pandemic, over 1,000 couples a year were having 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.

Humanist marriages were legally recognised in Scotland in 2005, the Republic of Ireland in 2012, Northern Ireland in 2018, and Jersey in 2019, and they will gain legal recognition in Guernsey in 2021.

In the July humanist marriage legal case, the judge ruled that the failure to provide legally recognised humanist marriages means that ‘the present law gives rise to… discrimination’. She also ruled that, in light of that, the Secretary of State for Justice ‘cannot… simply sit on his hands’ and do nothing. However, she said, given that the Government is currently giving the matter consideration in the form of a review into marriage law by the Law Commission, the Government’s refusal to act immediately can be justified ‘at this time’ and concluded, ‘Although I may deprecate the delay that has occurred since 2015, I cannot ignore the fact that there is currently an on-going review of the law of marriage in this country.’ As a consequence, she declined to make a formal declaration that the Government is acting unlawfully at this time. The couples in this case are currently exploring a limited appeal of just the last part of that judgment.

The Law Commission review follows on from a number of previous Government reviews into the matter spanning back to the 2013 Marriage Act. On its current schedule, if it is to result in any change in the law at all, it might only be expected to do so by 2023.

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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