We have long campaigned for a reform of marriage laws – in order to gain legal recognition for both humanist and same-sex marriage ceremonies. Humanist marriages are now legally recognised in Scotland, but not elsewhere in the UK, whereas same-sex marriages are legal in England, Wales, and Scotland, but not Northern Ireland.
Religious people have a choice between being married by a civil registrar and being married by a representative of their religion who shares their approach to life. Except in Scotland, non-religious people have no option other than the civil registrar. Many hundreds of people in England, Wales, and Northern Ireland each year choose to have a personalised and meaningful wedding ceremony performed by a humanist celebrant but their wedding is not a legal marriage. In Scotland the proportion of humanist marriages has grown rapidly since their legal recognition, overtaking Church of Scotland marriages in 2015, and we would expect the same in England and Wales.
The UK Government is currently considering whether to extend legal recognition to humanist marriages in England and Wales, and we are also pushing for such recognition in Northern Ireland.
Humanist celebrants in the UK have performed same-sex wedding ceremonies ever since the invention of humanist ceremonies. We were therefore delighted to play a strong part in the campaign to legalise first same-sex civil partnerships and then same-sex marriages in England, Wales, and Scotland, and are currently working for same-sex marriages to also be legalised in Northern Ireland.
We support the availability of secular civil registrars for all, and welcome the fact that civil marriages can now take place outside of Register Offices, in licensed premises.
But we want the law in England, Wales and Northern Ireland to allow humanist celebrants to conduct legal marriages as it does in Scotland. This would give non-religious people the same choice that religious people have of a meaningful ceremony composed by a person who shares their values and approach to life. Non-religious people in many other countries, from Norway to Australia to parts of the USA already enjoy this choice.
In relation to same-sex couples, we want marriage law to be reformed so that two men or two women enjoy the same access to marriage as a man and a woman. In England, Scotland, and Wales this is now possible, but it remains unlawful in Northern Ireland. We also supported the legalisation of same-sex civil partnerships across the UK.
What we’re doing
During the passage of the Marriage (Same-Sex Couples) Act 2013 through the UK Parliament, we worked hard to see humanist marriages legalised in England and Wales, as they are in Scotland. After it became clear that a majority in both houses of parliament were in favour of legalisation, in July 2013 the Government inserted a section into the Same-Sex Marriage Act, which was at the time going through Parliament, saying that it could in the future legalise humanist marriages in England and Wales, if it wishes, without the need for further primary legislation; and also that it had to consult and make a decision on doing so before the end of 2014.
The results of the subsequent consultation, published in December 2014, showed over 90% of respondents in favour of legalisation, but the Government still blocked the move, instead ordering the Law Commission to do a ‘scoping exercise’ of wider marriage law. The Commission reported in December 2015, and recognised the unfairness of the illegality of humanist marriage. We are now waiting to see if the Government will indeed take legalisation forward.
While humanist marriages remain without legal recognition, our network of over 300 highly trained and accredited celebrants continue to conduct unrecognised ceremonies regardless.
Same-sex marriage and civil partnerships
We campaigned hard in favour of the legalisation of same-sex marriage in England and Wales, and were a founder member of the Coalition for Equal Marriage. Thousands of members and supporters wrote to their MPs in support of legalisation, and many members of the All Party Parliamentary Humanist Group participated in ensuring its passage. Now that legalisation has occurred in Great Britain, we are working to see similar progress in Northern Ireland.
In June 2011 we responded to a government consultation on holding civil partnerships on religious premises, and called for the remaining inequalities for LGB humanists and the non-religious to be addressed.
Write to your MP explaining that the existing marriage laws discriminate against humanists, and asking him/her to raise the matter with Ministers. Please copy any reply you get to the BHA.
You could consider training as a BHA-accredited wedding celebrant. More details can be found on the Humanist Ceremonies website.
You can support the BHA by becoming a member. That helps in itself, and you can help even more by supporting our campaigns in the ways suggested above. But campaigns also cost money – quite a lot of money – and we also need financial support. You can make a donation to the BHA.
Wouldn’t it be great to start your married life with a ceremony that really means something? To tell your friends and family what your relationship means to you, and why you are choosing to get married?
Many of us who aren’t religious are looking for a wedding that is more flexible and personal than a civil or register office ceremony.