Civil marriage reform undermines case against humanist marriages

From 1 July legal recognition will be extended to outdoor civil marriages in England and Wales. The UK Government has announced that it will change the law to allow this until at least April 2022. But it has made no announcement about legal recognition of humanist marriages.

Humanists UK has called for their legal recognition to now also happen, on the same interim basis. It says the civil marriage reform will do little to deal with the present backlog of marriages, which is driven by a shortage of registrars who can conduct legally recognised marriages, not by a shortage of venues. By contrast, legal recognition of humanist marriages would help with that, as it would stop couples who only want a humanist wedding from also having to have an unwanted civil marriage to be legally married. What is more, the civil marriage reform in fact undermines the case against making the same move for humanist marriages.

In recent years the Government has resisted legal recognition of humanist marriages on the basis that piecemeal reform of marriage law should not occur. It has argued that marriage law reform should wait for the outcome of an ongoing Law Commission review, which will take years to implement. It even made that argument before the High Court last summer, when six humanist couples took a human rights claim. They argued that they were discriminated against by the fact that religious marriages are legally recognised but humanist marriages are not.

The judge in the case declined to give the couples the declaration of incompatibility that they sought between marriage law and human rights law. But she only did so because of the Government’s ‘legitimate’ opposition to piecemeal reform. The judge ruled that ‘the present law gives rise to… discrimination’. She also ruled that, in light of that, the Secretary of State for Justice ‘cannot… simply sit on his hands’ and do nothing. However, given the ongoing Law Commission review, she also said that the Government’s refusal to act immediately can be justified ‘at this time’. She did so because she considered ‘the Defendant’s stated desire to consider any reform on a wholesale, rather than piecemeal, basis’ was a legitimate aim. She wrote:

‘In the present case, the Government has identified concerns as to the potential consequences of addressing one area of unequal treatment without doing so as part of a more general reform. Specifically, in relation to the treatment of humanist and other non-religious belief marriages, particular issues were identified relating to the location where the ceremony might take place… these were matters seen to potentially give rise to new species of discrimination if reform was only undertaken on a piecemeal basis.’

From this she concluded, ‘Although I may deprecate the delay that has occurred since 2015, I cannot ignore the fact that there is currently an on-going review of the law of marriage in this country.’ The couples are exploring an appeal of this. They think that the eight years the Government has already had reviewing the matter is long enough. The Government’s latest move will only add strength to their claim.

Humanists UK Chief Executive Andrew Copson commented:

‘For years now the Government has been resisting legal recognition of humanist marriages on the basis that piecemeal reform of marriage law is undesirable. It has particularly pointed to the need to deal with inconsistent rules around which types of marriage can take place outdoors. It has argued that allowing humanist marriages to take place outdoors when some other types cannot would be unfair. It has even made this argument in court.

‘For it to now allow civil marriages outdoors while not also legally recognising humanist marriages is therefore unfair, even by its own logic. It must now extend legal recognition to humanist marriages, at least on the same basis as it is for outdoor civil marriages.’

Since 2013, the Government has had the power to extend legal recognition to humanist marriages by Order. A new Act of Parliament is not required. Humanists UK believes the Government should use this power to also give time-limited legal recognition to humanist marriages.marriag