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Briefing for MPs on humanist marriages in England and Wales

Lucy Penny and Dan Bradley are amongst the claimants.

What’s happening?

Six couples are taking a human rights case to try to secure legal recognition of humanist marriages in England and Wales. The case is being heard before the High Court on 7-8 July.

(Religious marriages are resuming from 4 July following the lifting of lockdown measures, with civil marriages to follow. There will be a large backlog of marriages that’ll keep registrars overly busy through to late 2021. Extending legal recognition to humanist marriages is one clear way the Government should seek to unclog that backlog. This would stop couples who want to have a humanist wedding from having to also have a civil marriage to gain legal recognition.)

The case for legal recognition of humanist marriages

Humanist marriages are now recognised in Scotland, Northern Ireland, and the Republic of Ireland, with the clear exception being England and Wales. Here’s why that should change:

  • It is fair: the 1,000 couples a year who have humanist weddings here already should have the same opportunity to marry in line with their beliefs as their religious counterparts.
  • It is democratic: 95% of respondents to a 2014 MoJ consultation supported it. A 2019 YouGov poll found 69% in favour and just 12% opposed, with a majority of every religious group in favour.
  • It is good for marriage: FOI data from Scotland shows that couples married in a humanist ceremony are almost four times less likely to divorce compared with all other types of marriages.
  • It is popular and will be good for the economy: The number of humanist weddings in Scotland have risen from 85 in 2005 to over 6,000 in 2018 – over 20% of the total, meaning Humanist Society Scotland provides more weddings than any other religion or belief group.
  • It would help unclog the strain on civil registrars caused by Covid-19: legally recognising humanist marriages would help unclog the lengthy waiting time for civil registrars by increasing the number of people able to conduct legally recognised marriages.

The best way to enact recognition is to lay an Order under section 14 of the Same-Sex Marriage Act. A draft Order has been produced and just needs a positive resolution — no new Act needed.

Wider context

  • Law Commission review: The Government has included humanist marriages in the Law Commission’s wholescale review of marriage. However, while it will make recommendations on how humanist marriages could be recognised, it can’t recommend to the Government if they should be. This is a matter for the Government to decide. The Commission also can’t consider human rights.
  • Private member’s bill: Baroness Meacher has introduced a private member’s bill (Marriage (Approved Organisations) Bill [HL] 2019-21) to legally recognise humanist marriages by replicating provisions which already apply to the Quakers and Jews. This is awaiting second reading.

Our strong preference would be for the Government to lay an Order to legally recognise humanist marriages as soon as possible. Doing so would be fair, democratic, good for marriage, and good for the economy, and it would help unclog the marriage backlog.

This briefing is also available as a one-page PDF. For more information contact Humanists UK’s Director of Public Affairs and Policy Richy Thompson by emailing richy@humanism.org.uk.

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