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Humanist marriage: The legal challenge

In contrast to both Scotland and Northern Ireland, humanist marriages, which are non-religious ceremonies conducted by a humanist celebrant, are not legally recognised in England and Wales.

This is despite years of campaigning across the board, by charities, MPs and peers in the House of Lords (HoL). In 2013, Parliament even granted the Government permission to enact legislation legally recognising this form of marriage. Yet, no further steps were taken.

Highlighting the discriminatory nature of this inaction, six couples recently appealed for humanist marriage to be legally recognised.Their landmark challenge was heard at the High Court.

Lack of legal recognition

Currently in England and Wales, if a couple want to have a humanist wedding, for legal recognition, they have to conduct a separate civil marriage. However, despite these barriers and additional financial pressure, according to data collected by Humanists UK, the number of humanist weddings has increased to over 1,050 each year.

Perhaps most surprising is that in 2013, under the Marriage Act, a new category of legally recognised marriage was created. This category outlined the following: “Marriages according to the usages of belief based organisations,” which effectively gave the Government permission to enact legal recognition of humanist marriages. Yet the Government has failed to make any changes.

However, this is not due to a lack of public backing. In 2019, a YouGov poll showed that 68% of adults supported the legal recognition of humanist marriage.

Legal recognition also has cross-party backing in the HoL. In 2018, peers debated this issue. Many expressed their frustration at the level of stagnation, and the unfairness of such inaction. Reflecting on this, Labour frontbencher Baroness Thornton said: “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”.

More recently in 2019, Baroness Meacher proposed a Private Members Bill (PMB), namely the Marriage (Approved Organisations) Bill [HL] 2019-21. The PMB seeks to give humanist marriages legal recognition. Its first reading was held on 9 January 2020 in the HoL, and now awaits its second reading.

Emphasising the need for this kind of legislative change, Head of Humanists UK, Andrew Copson said: “Couples who have humanist weddings see that day as the epitome of their love and commitment to each other, and all they want is the same legal recognition for that as is given to every religious person in our country”.

He added: “We have tried for decades to address this glaring double standard. Government has dragged its heels and that’s why it’s been left to these couples to bring this case”.

Legislation at odds with Scotland and Northern Ireland

In Scotland, humanist weddings gained legal recognition way back in 2005. Later, in 2017, Holyrood made the decision, under the Marriage (Scotland) Act 1977, to grant the Humanist Society of Scotland, the same status and authority as priests and ministers.

In the five years following its legalisation, the number of humanist weddings quickly exceeded the number of Roman Catholic ceremonies taking place in Scotland.

Now, according to National Records of Scotland data, humanist marriages have now overtaken Christian marriages, making up 22.6% of all marriages last year, in comparison to 22.3% for Christian marriages.

Moreover,  last year, there were 5,879 humanist weddings in Scotland, compared to just 82 in the year that they were legalised. This shows that humanist weddings are a growing trend.

Meanwhile, in June 2018, the Belfast Court of Appeal ruled in favour of legally recognising humanist marriages in Northern Ireland.

Commenting on the inequality stemming from these conflicting legislative stances, Crossbench human rights Barrister Lord Pannick QC asked in 2018: “Can there really be a justification for treating people in England and Wales differently than in Scotland and Northern Ireland?”

Liberal Democrat frontbench Spokesperson Baroness Burt, has also previously raised her concerns about the human rights implications of this, and commented on the positive impact of Humanist weddings: “In Scotland there has been a reverse in sharp decline of marriages, and divorce rates have fallen”.

And, this is true. A freedom of information request by Humanists UK in 2019, found that in the last fifteen years, only 0.25% of those in humanist marriages got divorced in 2017-18. Comparatively, this figure stood at 0.84% for all other couples.

High Court challenge

Contesting the current legal status of humanist marriages in England and Wales, six couples have launched a legal challenge at the High Court. Lodged last November, and supported by Humanists UK, the couples argue that they just want equality.

Speaking about the case, Kate Harrison and Christopher Sanderson, one of the couples involved in the case said: “It is highly discriminatory that if you have a religion you can get married in a way of your choosing which is compatible with your beliefs, but if you are non-religious, the state has a complete monopoly over how you get married”.

The full hearing took place on 7-8 July, and saw the couples’ lawyers make the case that the current law discriminates against humanists, on the basis of their beliefs, and as a result contravenes Article 9 of the Human Rights Act 1998. 

The hearing concluded with Mrs Justice Eady announcing that she would reserve her judgement until a later date, but that the case would be a priority.

Speaking about the case, Humanists UK Chief Executive Andrew Copson commented: “We are glad these couples have had their day in court, after two years of hard work getting to this point, and on a hugely important issue that has been at the top of our agenda with the Government for a decade now. We very much hope the judge rules in our favour and look forward to receiving her decision in due course”.

Claimants Finbar Graham and Jennifer McCalmont, added that they are hopeful that Mrs Justice Eady will rule in their favour. They said: “After following the case in court over the last couple of days we are extremely confident of getting a successful outcome, and look forward to getting the result all this hard work deserves in the coming weeks”.

Article Created By Madaline Dunn

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