Northern Ireland recently joined Scotland and Ireland in making humanist marriage legal.

Belfast’s Court of Appeal ruled last week that humanist celebrants must be registered by the state to be able to perform legal marriage ceremonies.

This is obviously great news for couples in Northern Ireland, but the question that many of my couples have is when can we expect access to legal humanist marriage in England and Wales? 

England and Wales are now the only parts of the UK where humanist marriage is not legally recognised. This means that couples wanting a humanist marriage, in either country, still need to sign their legal papers in a separate ceremony in front of a registrar, which is, frankly, unwanted hassle and additional cost – at just the time when couples could really do without additional hassle or cost!

In May 2018, the All Party Parliamentary Humanist Group published a report Any Legal Impediment which laid bare Government concerns about legalising humanist marriage in England and Wales – and discussed whether or not any of they were justified. These concerns ranged from ‘inconsistencies around venues’ (Humanists UK wishes its celebrants to continue to offer couples the option of marrying outdoors), to the potential for forced or sham marriages – not something particularly aimed at Humanists UK, but rather other hypothetical belief groups.

The report summarized that ‘none of the concerns are remotely sufficient to prevent the legal recognition of marriage performed by Humanists UK’ and described the case for reform as ‘overwhelming, not least from a human rights perspective’.

So what next???

Humanists UK has long campaigned to legalise humanist marriage in England and Wales, and finally end the bias which currently works in favour of religious organisations (who can perform legal wedding ceremonies). We’ve been trying to change the situation, using various Acts of Parliament, for almost two decades! And although we got VERY close during the coalition years, when same sex marriage was legalised in 2013, the proposals were quietly shelved.

The problem we have now, in 2018, is that parliamentary time is being swallowed up by Brexit, which makes it difficult for this to get pushed through to the finish line. However, changing the law to make humanist marriage legal in England and Wales would be fairly easy. Indeed, the report concludes by urging the Government to lay an Order for humanist marriages under section 14 of the existing Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act 2013.

The ruling in favour of making humanist marriage legal in Northern Ireland also sets a precedent for Westminster. The ruling itself is complex in its details, in that the Government technically succeeded in their appeal. But this was because the judges found a previously unavailable loophole in Northern Ireland law by which they decided there is already the power for humanist celebrants to be registered and ruled that the state should register them through that.

The judges went to some length to say that were it not for this alternative route, they would have issued a declaration of incompatibility with human rights law, and that what Laura and Eunan (the couple who brought the case) experienced was ‘discrimination’. They wrote that they ‘otherwise agree with [the] carefully reasoned judgment’ that was issued by the High Court, which did make such a declaration.

This has clear implications for England and Wales, where no such loophole exists, and therefore there is straightforwardly a human rights breach. The UK Government must surely now wake up to the fact that the current situation is incompatible with human rights law, and urgently act to rectify that. Humanists UK have written to the UK Government again to make that point, and hope to be able to say more on that soon.

Can we expect humanist marriage to be legal in England and Wales any time soon?

We’ve been waiting a long time to announce that humanist weddings are legal… and we’ve grown accustomed to our hopes being raised and dashed! So, for any couple considering a humanist wedding in the near future, the advice remains that you’ll still need to sign your legal papers separately.

However, with Northern Ireland joining Scotland and Ireland in making humanist marriage legal, along with Scotland, it does look very much like England and Wales are lagging behind. Hopefully this will spur the Government on to pass this through. So… WATCH THIS SPACE!

If you feel strongly about this making humanist marriage legal in England and Wales, please forward a copy of the report to your MP and challenge him/ her to push this issue at government level.