Humanists UK celebrates ten year anniversary of Same-Sex Marriage Act

Humanists UK today is celebrating the ten year anniversary of the Marriage (Same-Sex Couples) Act, which received Royal Assent on 17 July 2013. The Act’s primary aim was to allow for marriages of same-sex couples, which came into force the following year. But the anniversary is bittersweet, because it also gave the UK Government the power to legally recognise humanist marriages by Order – and here it has since failed to act.

Humanists UK was a leading voice in the campaign for same-sex marriage. It helped found the Coalition for Equal Marriage, the key coalition of groups that worked to secure the Bill. As a result of these efforts, Humanists UK was one of the two organisations – alongside Stonewall – thanked in the final debate on the Bill in the House of Lords.

Humanists UK Director of Public Affairs and Policy Richy Thompson commented:

‘Sitting in the gallery of the House of Lords ten years ago, I was delighted to be part of the passing of the Same-Sex Marriage Act. It was major progress for same-sex couples and for UK society as a whole, and I am proud of Humanists UK’s involvement in achieving this.

‘Yet this anniversary is also bittersweet. Ten years on, humanist couples are still waiting for legal recognition of their personal ceremonies reflecting their deepest held beliefs and values. The Act allowed the Government to recognise these marriages whenever it chooses, but it has since failed to act, instead subjecting the matter to review after review.’

Humanist marriages: reform still needed

The case for legal recognition of humanist marriages is clear. In 2020, six humanist couples took a legal case on the basis of discrimination to the High Court. In her judgment, Mrs Justice Eady found that the lack of legal recognition is discriminatory. She said that the Secretary of State ‘cannot simply… sit on his hands’ and do nothing to resolve the matter. However, she said, given that the Government was currently giving the matter consideration in the form of a wholesale review into marriage law by the Law Commission – which it said was the desirable way forward – the Government’s refusal to act immediately could be justified ‘at this time’. Since then, however, the review and its outcome have continued to be delayed. In the meantime, the Government has carried out interim marriage reform while continuously overlooking humanist marriages.

In April, Sandi Toksvig and Stephen Fry led a joint letter from LGBT people and organisations saying that humanist marriages are an LGBT rights issue. This, they said, is because two-thirds of lesbian, gay, and bisexual people are non-religious, and few religious groups offer same-sex marriages. Humanist celebrants always offer same-sex marriages – having done so for decades – and the first two same-sex marriages in Scotland were both humanist.

To commemorate the anniversary, Humanists UK delivered hundreds of handwritten wedding invitations to the Justice Secretary ‘cordially inviting’ him ‘to afford couples freedom of choice and legally recognise humanist marriages in England and Wales’. The invites were filled in by Humanists UK members including many who want humanist marriages themselves, all highlighting the personal significance of such a move for the senders.

At the delivery, Humanists UK was joined by Peter McGraith and David Cabreza, the first same-sex couple in England and Wales to legally marry, just after midnight on 29 March 2014. Asked about the significance of the campaign, Peter McGraith said:

‘As a Scot living in England, I am well aware that all couples marrying in Scotland have the option of a legally recognised humanist marriage ceremony. And it is worth noting that humanist marriage ceremonies in Scotland are a more popular option than any other religion or belief group. I myself would have chosen a humanist ceremony if that had been available.’