10 Years On: Humanists UK reflects on Same-Sex Marriage Act coming into force

Humanists UK is celebrating the ten year anniversary of the first same-sex marriages in England and Wales. Whereas the Marriage (Same-Sex Couples) Act received Royal Assent on 17 July 2013, it took some time to implement this change, so the Act only came into force the following year. The first same-sex marriages took place just after midnight on 29 March 2014.

The Act’s primary aim was to allow for marriages of same-sex couples across England and Wales, and Humanists UK was a leading voice in bringing about this pivotal change. It was a founding member of the Coalition for Equal Marriage, the key coalition of groups that worked to secure the Bill, and as a result of its efforts, Humanists UK was one of only two organisations – alongside Stonewall – thanked in the final debate on the Bill in the House of Lords.

Yet the anniversary is a bittersweet moment for humanist couples. The Marriage (Same-Sex Couples) Act also gave the UK Government the power to legally recognise humanist marriages by Order whenever it chooses — something it has since failed to do. Instead, humanist marriages have been subjected to review after review, meaning many humanist couples are still waiting to legally marry in a ceremony meaningful to them ten years on.

Humanists UK Chief Executive Andrew Copson commented:

“The Marriage Act recognised the fundamental right of couples to love and marry irrespective of their gender. It signified 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.

But as we reflect on the progress made over the past decade, we must also confront the challenges that remain unresolved. Humanist marriages are reflective of the values of many in our society, and it is time that they receive the legal recognition they deserve.”

In 2020, the High Court found the lack of legal recognition of humanist marriages discriminatory when six humanist couples brought a legal challenge. In her judgment, Mrs Justice Eady said that the Secretary of State ‘cannot simply… sit on his hands’ and do nothing to resolve the matter. However, given that the Government was 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 – she said that 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, and the Government has carried out interim marriage reform in the meantime while continuously overlooking humanist marriages.

To commemorate the 10-year anniversary of the Act’s Royal Assent in July 2013, 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. Reflecting on the last ten years, Peter, who is a humanist, said:

“Humanist ceremonies are for any couple – gay, lesbian, bisexual, or heterosexual. Most places of worship do not welcome or conduct same-sex marriages, despite having the legal opportunity to do so, and that leaves same-sex couples with few choices.

In Scotland, same-sex marriage legislation also allowed for humanist marriage from the start, yet ten years on, humanist marriages are still not available to gay and lesbian couples in England and Wales. This feels like unfinished business, and there can be no excuse for ten years of delay. I would like to see legal recognition as soon as possible.”

Data from the 2021 Census showed that two-thirds of lesbian, gay, and bisexual people are non-religious. In April 2023, Sandi Toksvig and Stephen Fry led a joint letter from LGBT people and organisations establishing humanist marriages are an LGBT rights issue, with only few religious groups offering 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.