Marriage laws

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 Roman Catholic marriages, and we would expect the same in England and Wales.

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 gay 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 many European countries this is now possible, and Civil Partnerships (which we supported at the time even though we also advocated more radical reform) should be seen as a stepping-stone towards full marriage equality between same-sex couples and heterosexual couples.

What are we doing?

In May 2007 the BHA met with the Registrar-General, and again put forward our position. We are continuing to seek ways to reform the law, either through primary legislation or changes to the interpretation of the current law based on equal treatment and human rights arguments.

In 2009, the BHA made a submission to the parliamentary Joint Committee on Human Rights (JCHR), requesting an inquiry in to marriage law in England and Wales and, specifically, the continuing discrimination against humanists.

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. Read our full consultation response.

In 2013 we are seeking amendments to the Bill proposing to legalise same sex marriage so that it will allow humanist celebrants to conduct legal marriages of all couples.

What can you do?

Write to your MP explaining that the existing marriage laws discriminate against humanists, and asking him/her to raise the matter with Ministers. Explain also that even when humanist marriages get legal validity, same sex partners could still not get legally married or partnered in a humanist ceremony as at present they must be partnered via the registration service, and that this would be a clearly discriminatory situation.

Please copy any reply you get to the BHA.

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