Opinion Former Article

Peers from all sides call for legal humanist marriages

Conservative, Labour, Liberal Democrat, and Crossbench members of the House of Lords have today launched a concerted push calling for legal recognition of humanist marriages in England and Wales.

The call, which was supported by the Labour and Liberal Democrat frontbench spokespeople and such eminent peers as crossbenchers Baroness Butler-Sloss and Lord Pannick QC and Conservative Lord Garel-Jones, comes amidst growing frustration at the lack of any progress some five years after the passage of the Same-Sex Marriage Act first gave the Government the power to bring legal recognition of humanist marriages about.

Humanists UK Chief Executive Andrew Copson commented: ‘The law in England and Wales provides for legal humanist marriages - the Government just hasn’t brought it into effect. Every year it delays doing so, over 1,000 couples are denied the marriage of their choice.

‘Legal recognition would end the unfairness that sees religious people able to have the marriage they want when humanists can’t, it would bring England and Wales in line with the rest of the UK, it would be good for marriage as an institution, and it is what the public and Parliament both clearly want. The Government should get on with it.’

Humanist marriages in Scotland, conducted by Humanist Society of Scotland celebrants, were legalised in 2005 and are now the most popular type of wedding ceremony in Scotland.

Interventions from all sides:

Opening the debate, Labour peer Lord Harrison called for humanist marriages to become legal in England and Wales, as they now are in Scotland and Northern Ireland. He noted that humanists now participate in the national Remembrance ceremonies across the UK and are an established mainstream part of British public life. This only makes the lack of legal humanist marriages even harder to justify.

The eminent crossbench human rights barrister Lord Pannick QC raised the fact that humanist marriages are legal in Northern Ireland because of a human rights case, brought by Laura Lacole with support of Humanists UK. In this context, he asked, ‘Can  there really be a justification for treating people in England and Wales differently than in Scotland and Northern Ireland?’

The Government responded by noting a recently announced review of marriage venues, to be conducted by the Law Commission - although it’s unclear as of yet as to whether this will include humanist marriage. Conservative Lord Garel-Jones responded to this by saying that ‘Consultation with the Law Commission simply won't do, as as long ago as 2013, the Secretary of State was given power to make humanist marriages legal. Would he please be asked to exercise that power forthwith?’

Liberal Democrat frontbench spokesperson Baroness Burt also raised human rights implications. She noted that ‘In Scotland there has been a reverse in sharp decline of marriages, and divorce rates have fallen’ - so if the Government is pro-marriage, then why isn’t it bringing about legal humanist marriage.

Labour peer Baroness Whitaker noted that the Government had been ‘for a very very long time considering this mild, popular, and progressive proposal’ - and it was time to get on with it.

Crossbencher Baroness Butler-Sloss, who was the first female Court of Appeal judge, noted that ‘The Law Commission in [its previous review in 2015 said that to deny humanist marriage was fundamentally unfair’ - something Government minister Baroness Vere had omitted to mention when earlier quoting from the report.

And finally, Labour frontbencher Baroness Thornton said that ‘five years ago I stood at this dispatch box and called for legal humanist marriages, and there was support for this across the house as then, as there has been today. It is unacceptable that five years and two reviews later there has been no progress.’ How can a Government in favour of choice allow this, she asked?

Responding for the Government, Baroness Vere did acknowledge that ‘humanist marriages are attractive to many couples’, pointing to their success in Scotland. Perversely she almost seemed to suggest that the clear overwhelming demand for them justified delay, as the Government wanted to make sure what it was doing was getting things right.

About humanist marriages

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, and conducted by a celebrant who shares their beliefs and values.

Humanist marriages have long been legally recognised in Scotland and the Republic of Ireland, and have had a transformative effect in both countries. 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 2017 around eight percent of legal marriages were humanist, placing the Humanist Association of Ireland only behind the Catholic Church and civil marriages.

More recently humanist marriages became legal in Northern Ireland in August, following a Court of Appeal ruling that concluded that a failure to do so would be a breach of human rights. Jersey also gave legal recognition to humanist marriages in July, with the first ones expected to be performed in due course, and Guernsey is currently consulting on doing the same thing.

In England and Wales, over 1,000 couples a year already have non-legal humanist wedding ceremonies, but such ceremonies cannot at present carry legal recognition, without the couple also going through the time and expense of having a civil marriage as well. Humanists UK believes this is unfair, and since religious marriages do carry such recognition, discriminatory. But the recognition in Ireland, Scotland, Northern Ireland, and Jersey, and the ongoing proposals in Guernsey, surely means that the prospects of legal recognition in England and Wales, too, should become much more likely. Since 2013 humanist marriages have been on the statute books in England and Wales, but the UK Government hasn’t chosen to enact the relevant statute.

The Government recently announced a review of the law around marriage venues in England and Wales. It is presently unclear whether this review will include humanist marriages, but Humanists UK sees no good reason as to why humanist marriages need another review. Instead Humanists UK is asking the Government to urgently bring about legal recognition.

Notes:

For further comment or information, please contact Humanists UK press manager Casey-Ann Seaniger at casey@humanism.org.uk or phone 020 7324 3078 or 07 393344293.

Read more about Humanists UK’s campaigns around marriage laws: https://humanism.org.uk/campaigns/human-rights-and-equality/marriage-laws/

At Humanists UK, we advance free thinking and promote humanism to create a tolerant society where rational thinking and kindness prevail. Our work brings non-religious people together to develop their own views, helping people be happier and more fulfilled in the one life we have. Through our ceremonies, education services, and community and campaigning work, we strive to create a fair and equal society for all.

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