6 couples are going to High Court to seek legal recognition for humanist weddings!

Updated: Jul 2, 2020

(all photos in this blog are my real couples, text is from Humanists UK except where I talk about my own experience and my couples).

We have been embargoed - until today! So now I can share this with you.

Six couples are going to the High Court to take a landmark challenge over the legal recognition of humanist marriages in England and Wales. Their case is being supported by Humanists UK, which has campaigned for legal recognition of humanist marriage for many decades. It will be heard on 7-8 July.

A humanist wedding is a non-religious ceremony that is rooted in the humanist beliefs and values of the couple, conducted by a celebrant who shares their beliefs and values. It differs from a registry office wedding in that it is deeply personal and crafted by the couple along with the humanist celebrant to reflect their own feelings for each other and their engagement with family and friends.

Humanists UK wants to see humanist weddings legally recognised. Currently, religious weddings are legally recognised across the UK, but humanist weddings have no such recognition in England and Wales. In England and Wales, Parliament has enacted such recognition, but the Government has not brought that enactment into force. This is discriminatory and unfair, and a breach of the couples’ human rights.

Legal recognition would be:

● Overwhelmingly popular: in a 2019 YouGov survey, 69% of the public supported legal recognition of humanist marriages in England and Wales, including a majority of those of all religions and beliefs. The number of humanist marriages happening in Scotland and the Republic of Ireland (representing around 22% and 9% of the total, respectively), where there already is legal recognition, is also testament to that;

● Simple to do: it just requires a positive resolution in both Houses of Parliament, needing no more than 90 minutes of legislative time. We already have a professionally prepared draft of the necessary statutory instrument, and we know it is a move that commands majority support in both Houses;

● Good for families: evidence from Scotland shows that legal recognition there reversed the decline in the overall number of marriages carried out, which is good for marriage as an institution. Official 2019 statistics also show that humanist marriages in Scotland are easily the least likely to end in divorce;

● Good for the economy: by the same token, more marriages means the marriage economy – already worth £10 billion – will continue to grow. This is increasingly vital during the coronavirus pandemic;

● Help ease the strain on civil registrars: with many marriages delayed by the coronavirus pandemic, there is now expected to be a waiting list of six months to a year to have a civil marriage in many parts of the country. Legally recognising humanist marriages would help ease that strain by increasing the number of people able to conduct legally recognised marriages; and

● Keep England and Wales up to speed with the rest of the British Isles: Scotland, the Republic of Ireland, Northern Ireland, Jersey, and Guernsey already have legal recognition.

Humanists UK leads the campaign for such recognition, working with government, politicians and all supporters to lobby for change.

All of my couples see the day of their ceremony as their wedding day and this is the day they choose to celebrate their anniversary. It is deeply unfair that they currently have to attend a civil ceremony with a registrar present in addition to their humanist ceremony when couples having a religious ceremony do not. This is not something they wish to do and is an inconvenience during what is otherwise an exciting time.

FAQs about humanism

Q: What is humanism?

A: Humanists are non-religious people who shape their own lives in the here and now, because we believe it’s the only life we have. Humanists make sense of the world through logic, reason, and evidence, and always seek to treat those around us with warmth, understanding, and respect.

[If more detail needed] Most non-religious people in the UK today meet the definition of being a humanist, though not all of them have heard the term before. This means there are more people with humanist beliefs then there are Anglicans or are Catholics. The number of people who primarily identify with the label ‘humanist’ is more than the number of Muslims.

Q: Who is Humanists UK?

A: Humanists UK is the national charity working on behalf of non-religious people. Powered by over 85,000 members and supporters, Humanists UK advances free thinking and promotes humanism to create a tolerant society where rational thinking and kindness prevail. Humanists UK provides ceremonies, pastoral care, education, and support services benefitting over a million people every year and our campaigns advance humanist thinking on ethical issues, human rights, and equal treatment for all.

[If more detail needed] Humanists UK is the only organisation that provides humanist ceremonies in England, Wales, Northern Ireland, and the crown dependencies. Humanists UK has around 450 trained and accredited celebrants who conduct over 10,000 ceremonies a year, including legally recognised marriages in Northern Ireland and Jersey. Humanists UK’s sister charity Humanist Society Scotland conducts more legally recognised marriages in Scotland every year than any other provider of marriages, including the Church of Scotland.

FAQs about humanist marriages in general

Q: What are humanist weddings?

A: Humanist weddings are non-religious wedding ceremonies which are personal occasions that are fully customised to match the deepest-held values and beliefs of the couple getting married. They are conducted by a humanist celebrant, someone guaranteed to share their beliefs, who in consultation with the couple produces a bespoke script. Although at present not legally recognised in England or Wales, Humanists UK does more non-legal wedding ceremonies than any minority religious group does legal marriages.

Q: If humanist weddings aren’t legal, how do they currently happen at all?

A: At present, couples in England and Wales wishing to have a humanist wedding ceremony also have to go through a separate registry office wedding, often for practical reasons on a different date, in order to gain legal recognition for their marriage. This is an additional expense and administrative burden that religious couples don’t have to face, but more than that, couples often complain that the marriage ceremony 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.

Q: How are humanist ceremonies any different from civil marriages conducted by registrars? A: When a couple opts for a civil marriage by a registrar, they can't choose to use a celebrant that shares their beliefs. There are strict limits on how far they can customise the script to fully match who they are as a couple – indeed they can't have any specifically humanist content at all, if that's what they want. For some people that's fine – not everyone wants this level of customisation, and not every non-religious person is a humanist. But for those who do want it, that's where humanist marriages come in – just as religious marriages are not for every religious couple but are legally available for those who want them. Only with a humanist marriage are non-religious couples guaranteed a celebrant who shares their beliefs, in a venue that is special to them (including outdoors), and using a fully customised script that reflects their deepest beliefs and desires.

Q: In what way does humanism need the same legal rights as a religion – when it’s not a religion?

A: In the UK, under our equality and human rights law, non-religious worldviews such as humanism are afforded equal protection to religions. Humanism is recognised as a coherent system of belief that is just as worthy of legal protection as are major world religions. Humanists’ beliefs and practices can be just as significant in shaping their lives as those of religious people, and that is why it is right that this protection is afforded.

Q: At the moment, other forms of marriage generally can’t legally take place outdoors. This is something you’re demanding. How would that be fair?

A: Currently many of our ceremonies are outdoors so it follows that we would like these to be legalised. In fact, the Church of England, the Quakers, and the Jews can already marry people outside – so we’re not demanding something unprecedented but rights some groups already have. But the reality of the matter is that religious groups haven’t been asking to marry people outside because for most religions it’s important to have the wedding take place in a consecrated building. Outdoor locations in the midst of nature are special for many humanists. Besides, humanists have no ‘places of worship’ as required in law for religious weddings and so anyway need some different arrangement.

In sum, to deny humanists any legal recognition for their marriages because of inconsistencies (which already exist) around laws on venues would be to try to make two wrongs make a right. Even if wider laws around venues should be changed, that isn’t a strong argument for blocking humanist marriages entirely in the interim.

Q: The Law Commission is looking at marriage law as a whole. In the meantime, piecemeal reform of already overly complex legislation is undesirable.

A: The Government is already in the process of making a number of piecemeal reforms to marriage law. Examples include reforms around conversions between civil partnerships and marriages, moving to an electronic system of marriage registration, adding mothers’ names to marriage certificates, possibly enabling civil marriages to happen outdoors, and divorce reform. So this is a bad argument.

The Law Commission’s review will take at least three years to see through to implementation, if that happens at all. Under 30% of completed Law Commission projects from the last ten years have been implemented. In the meantime thousands of couples are expected to have humanist weddings. The

Government should therefore bring about legal recognition immediately, even if it then decides to amend the law further after the Law Commission review is complete.

Q: Why hasn’t the Government extended legal recognition to humanist marriages already? A: We’re not sure. There doesn’t seem to be any sizeable group opposed to humanist marriages. Even the Church of England is not opposed, and can see why people would want to be able to be married by a celebrant who shares their beliefs. The Government usually cites as reasons for delay the undesirability of piecemeal reform and inconsistencies in the law around marriage venues. But both of these arguments are pretty minor when contrasted with the human rights picture and the fact that over 1,000 couples a year are already having humanist weddings without legal recognition. And neither stands up to detailed scrutiny. [See previous FAQs on piecemeal reform and venues.]

Q: What’s wrong with having to have two ceremonies? Put simply, it’s discrimination. It’s a significant additional expense (often up to £500) and 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.

Q: The Law Commission is currently doing a review into marriage venues, can’t you just wait for that to solve this? The Law Commission is currently conducting a review into marriage laws. But 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. The Law Commission is also not looking at human rights, as part of its review. 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 Ministry of Justice and 2015 Law Commission consultations on this very subject. The Law Commission’s review will take at least three years to see through to implementation, if that happens at all. Under 30% of completed Law Commission projects from the last ten years have been implemented.

FAQs about the legal case specifically

Q: Do you think it's appropriate to take a case of this nature at a time when the Government is busy dealing with the coronavirus pandemic, and weddings aren't happening anyway? A: We applied for permission to take the case long before the pandemic. Permission for the case to be heard was granted by the High Court on 2 March, with the full hearing due to happen on 7-8 July. After permission was granted, we offered to negotiate with the Government over possibly settling the case, particularly in light of the coronavirus pandemic, but this offer was refused. It is now hoped that the case will lead to a change in the law before the anticipated surge in demand for marriage services that is likely to follow the end of the pandemic.

Q: What do you hope to achieve in this case? A: We hope to see the High Court declare that the lack of legal recognition of humanist marriages is incompatible with the right to freedom of religion or belief and the prohibition on discrimination under the European Convention on Human Rights. This would tell the Government that it has to change the law to bring about such recognition.

Q: Don’t you stand to profit from this case? Is that why you’re taking it?

A: Not at all. Our celebrants charge a reasonable fee that reflects the time and effort they put into constructing humanist ceremonies. The fees are comparable to those charged by registrars and religious groups. We are only taking this case in order to give couples the right to have the type of marriage they want, as religious couples are also allowed to do.

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