Humanist weddings: an update on the legal situation in England and Wales

Kirsty and Reshma’s humanist wedding ceremony. Image by   Lex Fleming

Kirsty and Reshma’s humanist wedding ceremony. Image by Lex Fleming

Humanist marriages are now legally recognised around almost all parts of the UK, Ireland, and crown dependencies - with the big exception being England and Wales.

At the moment, couples in England and Wales who want to have a humanist wedding ceremony and to be legally married also have to go through a separate register office wedding - which, often, for practical reasons, takes place on a different date, in order to gain legal recognition for their marriage.

This is an additional expense (up to £500) and administrative faff that religious couples don’t have to face. But more than that, my couples often complain that the marriage ceremony that they see as their ‘real wedding’ is not the one recognised in law - or even by religious friends or relatives as when they become legally married.

The Law Commission review

You may have seen the recent news that the Law Commission is conducting a review into marriage laws, with the aim being to modernise how and where marriages are allowed to take place – and humanist marriages are within its scope. So far, so promising eh?

BUT  - and it’s a big but - that review will take at least three years to see through to implementation, and even then the Law Commission has stated that it ‘will not be making recommendations on whether as a matter of policy new groups should be allowed to conduct legally binding weddings, which is a decision for Government.’

So, that means that the Government still needs to take a view. Oh, hello Square One, my old friend (EYE ROLLING HARD)

The charity I am associated with, Humanists UK, is lobbying the UK Government to use its existing powers (yes, it has the power to do this NOW) to enact such recognition without delay.

Humanists have been waiting a bloody long time for our marriages to be legally recognised, after decades 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 Ministry of Justice and 2015 Law Commission consultations on this very subject.

To say we’re getting a bit miffed with all this prevaricating would, erm, be putting it VERY POLITELY!

The campaign to legalise humanist weddings across the UK

In England and Wales, Parliament almost passed legal recognition of humanist marriages in the 2013 Same Sex Marriages Act (so close!), but the Government instead amended it to create a new category of belief-based marriages and gave itself the power to enact recognition by statutory instrument. At the time it said it was minded to do so, and this was clearly the will of both houses.

But the Secretary of State for Justice has still not used this power.

Legal recognition has had a transformative effect on Scottish and Irish society. In Scotland, humanist marriages gained legal recognition in 2005, and have risen in number from 85 in the first year to almost 7,000 in 2017 – some 20% of the total, meaning Humanist Society Scotland now provides more marriage ceremonies than any other religion or belief group.

In the Republic of Ireland, humanist marriages gained legal recognition in 2012. In 2018 around 9% 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 that the UK Government must now act for England and Wales as well.

Because this blatant lack of equality across the UK is just getting plain EMBARRASSING now!

Humanist weddings are growing in popularity in England and Wales

Over 1,000 couples a year now have non-legally recognised humanist wedding ceremonies in England and Wales, behind only civil marriages, Anglicans, Catholics, and Methodists, in spite of the fact that our ceremonies do not currently have legal recognition. In my mind that shows just how AMAZING our weddings are – that couples are prepared to put up with going through the rigmarole of registering their marriage separately.

BUT WHY SHOULD THEY HAVE TO?

There is strong public support for legal recognition, with a recent poll finding 69% in favour and just 12% opposed. A majority of every religion and belief is in favour, and 95% of respondents to a 2014 Ministry of Justice consultation also supported a change in the law - but instead the MoJ batted the issue off to the Law Commission.

What YOU can do to help?

  • You can support Humanists UK, the charity I am accredited with and help support (a percentage of all my fees goes back to Humanists UK to help fund their campaign work) by becoming a member or making a donation

  • 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.

This is an outstanding human rights issue affecting thousands of couples, and one that can - and SHOULD - be resolved immediately.

LET’S MAKE IT HAPPEN!

Katie MatthewsComment