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Legal recognition of humanist marriages

Photograph of a humanist marriage in Northern Ireland.

We have long campaigned for 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, Northern Ireland, and Jersey, as well as in neighbouring countries like the Republic of Ireland, with Guernsey currently in the process of extending legal recognition too. But to date there is still no recognition of our wedding ceremonies in England and Wales or the Isle of Man.

A humanist wedding is a non-religious ceremony that is deeply personal and conducted by a humanist celebrant. It differs from a civil wedding in that it is entirely hand-crafted and reflective of the humanist beliefs and values of the couple, conducted by a celebrant who shares their beliefs and values.

Weddings conducted by a humanist celebrant can be performed in any part of the UK or crown dependencies, but they don’t come with legal recognition in England, Wales, Guernsey, or the Isle of Man. This is discriminatory, because religious people have a choice between being married by a civil registrar or being married by a representative of their religion who shares their approach to life, but those wanting a humanist wedding also have to have a separate civil marriage in order to be legally married. This causes additional expense and an administrative burden that religious couples don’t have to face, but more than that, couples often complain that the wedding ceremony they see as their ‘real’ marriage ceremony is not the one recognised in law as when they become legally married.

In England and Wales, the Marriage Act 2013 created a new category of legally recognised marriage in England and Wales – ‘marriages according to the usages of belief based organisations’. This category was created by the UK Parliament so that the Government could enact legal recognition to humanist marriages by secondary legislation. But in the many years since, the Government has still not enacted this. With over 1,000 couples a year already having humanist wedding ceremonies that are not legally recognised, we are urging the UK Government to act swiftly and bring about legal recognition.

In depth

We want the law throughout the UK and crown dependencies to allow humanist celebrants to conduct legally recognised marriages, as it does in Scotland, Northern Ireland, and Jersey. This would give non-religious people the same choice that religious people have of a meaningful ceremony conducted by a person who shares their values and approach to life. Non-religious people in many other countries, from the Republic of Ireland to Australia to New Zealand to the USA already enjoy this choice.

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 have risen in number from 85 in the first year to almost 7,000 in 2017 – some 20% of the total. Humanist Society Scotland provides more marriage ceremonies than the Church of Scotland or any other religion or belief group. In the Republic of Ireland, humanist marriages gained legal recognition in 2012. In 2018, nine percent of legally recognised marriages were humanist, placing the Humanist Association of Ireland only behind the Catholic Church and civil marriages.

In Northern Ireland, a 2018 Court of Appeal judgment on a human rights challenge led to the first legally recognised humanist marriages happening there that August. This judgment should logically mean the UK Government must now act for England and Wales as well. In Jersey, a new law giving recognition to humanist marriages came into force in 2018, with the first humanist ceremonies occurring in 2019. Guernsey is currently planning to also extend recognition.

In England and Wales, the Law Commission is currently conducting a review into marriage laws. But on humanist marriages, it says it ‘will not be making recommendations on whether as a matter of policy new groups [i.e. humanists] should be allowed to conduct legally binding weddings, which is a decision for Government.’ So the Government still needs to take a view.

This is an outstanding human rights issue affecting thousands of couples and so the Government should just go ahead and resolve it immediately. Further, humanists have already been waiting for this change for decades on the back of one review or another. In 1999-2005 the Labour Government did a review of marriage venues and humanist marriages were discussed during that review. But nothing came of it. The same is true for 2014 MoJ and 2015 Law Commission consultations on humanist marriages. The review will take at least three years to see through to implementation, if it ever gets there at all. In the meantime, thousands of couples will miss out on the chance to have the sort of legal marriage they want.

At the very least, the Government should lay an order to bring about legal recognition, even if the state of law it produces is only an interim one until the implementation of whatever reforms the Law Commission review recommends. Otherwise, thousands of couples will be prevented from having the type of marriage which they would want, and to which human rights law means they should be entitled.

Legal recognition of humanist marriages would be hugely popular, is simple to bring about, good for families and for the economy, and end a clear inequality between humanist and religious couples. There is no good reason to delay such recognition. We are therefore calling on the UK Government to urgently use its existing powers to legally recognise humanist marriages.

What we’re doing

In recent years we have secured legal recognition of humanist marriages in Northern Ireland and Jersey, with recognition currently proposed by Guernsey too. We have also led the campaign for recognition elsewhere:

  • During the passage of the Marriage (Same-Sex Couples) Act 2013 through the UK Parliament, we worked hard to see humanist marriages gain legal recognition in England and Wales. After it became clear that a majority in both houses of Parliament were in favour of legalisation, the Government inserted a section in the Bill that means it can enact legal recognition to humanist marriages without requiring a new Act. The law also said the Government 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 legal recognition, 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 lack of recognition of humanist marriage. However, the Government still has not enacted legal recognition, and in 2018 instead asked the Law Commission to conduct a further review.
  • In 2017, we took a case in Northern Ireland with two of our members to allow them to have a legally recognised humanist marriage. They won their case the following summer and the first legally recognised marriages began from that August.
  • In 2018, through the efforts of Humanists UK patron Louise Doublet and after years of campaigning by Humanists UK, humanist marriage gained legal recognition in Jersey. The first marriages took place in 2019.
  • In 2018, the All-Party Parliamentary Humanist Group conducted an inquiry into humanist marriage in England and Wales and the issues preventing the Government giving it legal recognition. It concluded that ‘the human rights case for such reform is overwhelming. Given these facts it is far past time the Government enacts legal recognition. We can see no reason for continuing delay.’ We have met repeatedly with Secretaries of State and other Government ministers about the need for a change in the law in England and Wales, and will continue to do so until humanist marriages are legally recognised.
  • In 2019 we published a poll showing there is strong public support for legal recognition in England and Wales, with 69% in favour and just 12% opposed. A majority of every religion and belief is in favour. Indeed, religious groups are not opposed to legal recognition of humanist marriage: the Church of England in particular has told us, ‘it can be beneficial for a couple if their wedding is presided over by a celebrant who shares their faith or beliefs and there should be no reason why couples who espouse their belief system should not benefit from that provision just as Christians and others do.’
  • In 2019 we also published research from Scotland showing that couples married in a humanist ceremony there are almost four times less likely to divorce compared with all other types of marriages. This, we said, further pointed to the desirability of legal recognition of humanist marriages.
  • In 2019 the Guernsey States Assembly voted in principle in favour of bringing about legal recognition of humanist marriages, after a consultation showed 94% in favour – with legislation to do this expected later in the year.

Regardless of whether you live in a place where humanist marriages have legal recognition, our network of over 400 highly trained and accredited celebrants continue to conduct ceremonies.

Support the campaign

Write to your MP explaining that the existing marriage laws discriminate against humanists, and asking them to raise the matter with Ministers. Please copy any replies you get to Humanists UK.

You could consider training as a Humanists UK accredited wedding celebrant. More details can be found on the Humanist Ceremonies website.

You can support Humanists UK 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 Humanists UK.

How to get a humanist wedding

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.

A humanist, non-religious wedding ceremony gives you the opportunity to marry where you want, when you want and how you want. They’re available throughout the UK and crown dependencies (although cannot confer legal recognition in England, Wales, Guernsey, and the Isle of Man – hence this campaign). You can find out more on the Humanist Ceremonies website.

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