High Court case for legal recognition of humanist marriages

by | Jul 1, 2020 | Uncategorized | 0 comments

Six couples are going to the High Court on 7-8 July to take a landmark challenge over the legal recognition of humanist marriages.

The case will try to compel a legal recognition of humanist weddings in England and Wales, as is the case in Scotland and Northern Ireland. The legal argument in this court cases centres around the disparity with legally valid religious weddings as the lack of recognition for humanist marriage, discriminates against couples with humanist beliefs. The lawyers will base their challenge on human rights legislation which prohibits discrimination based on belief.

Feature Image: Sam Jayne Photography

What is a humanist wedding?

A humanist wedding is a non-religious ceremony that is personal and deeply meaningful. Humanist weddings are rooted in a couple’s life experiences, their humanist beliefs and values. The ceremony is led by a humanist celebrant who shares the beliefs and values of the couple and takes time to get to know them. Each ceremony is uniquely crafted so that it is both profound and life-affirming for each couple. Humanists UK has provided these ceremonies for many decades.

Humanist weddings without legal recognition

In England and Wales, over 1,000 couples a year already have a humanist wedding without legal recognition. As a celebrant, it is frustrating, that no matter how significant and awesome my ceremonies are for the couple and their guests, there are not enough in law to create a legal marriage. Religious weddings are legally recognised yet couples who choose a humanist ceremony must also book a separate civil registration of their marriage.

Why is the current situation discriminatory?

There are two main problems with this situation. One is the big defining issue, and the other is really a set of annoying practical issues.

The existential issue first! Weddings are defining moments in our lives. A wedding is a rite of passage; it’s intrinsically linked with our sense of identity. The way we choose to marry defines how we see ourselves both as individuals and as a couple, our hopes for the future, the way we understand the world, and how we see our place in it. Yet humanist couples are currently denied the right to legally register their marriage in a way that reflects their humanist beliefs, values and identity.

Couples who have a religious faith are able to marry in a venue which is significant to them, with a ceremony that reflects their beliefs and values, led by a person who shares these beliefs and values. Humanists are not. That is discriminatory and unfair and, as the lawyers will argue in the High Court case, technically a breach of a couple’s human rights

The second aspect to this discrimination is, more tangible. It involves the extra time, effort and expense that humanist couples face because they must book an additional civil ceremony. This places an extra burden on humanist couples at a busy, sometimes stressful and certainly expensive time in the run-up to their wedding. In my experience couples can worry about when they should book the legal registration, who they should invite, and how family members may feel if they are not included. The availability of the simplest and cheapest marriage registration is prohibitively restricted by Registrar Offices. At the Hereford Register Office you can only book this legal registration at 9.30 on a Tuesday morning! If couples want more than 2 people – such as both sets of their parents or their own children – to be present as witnesses, their hand is forced into buying an expensive civil ceremony package.

I do want to stress that none of these issues are insurmountable and it is always worth the extra effort to ensure that you have a ceremony that you deserve. However, it remains completely unfair that couples in England and Wales have to go this extra mile to marry in accordance with their humanist beliefs.

A comment from Humanists UK Chief Executive Andrew Copson:

‘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. 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. As more and more non-religious couples choose to have humanist weddings, we need a law that works for all people who want to marry and we hope this case will lead to reform.’

Still waiting!

Parliament voted to give the Government the power to give legal recognition to humanist marriages in 2013 but no Government has used it. In the time since then, over 6,000 couples have been denied legal recognition for their humanist wedding, either having to go to a state registrar for an unwanted second ceremony in order to gain legal recognition, or not be legally married at all. This lack of action has left humanist couples with no option than to resort to this legal challenge.

What happens next?

The court case will be held in the High Court on July 7 & 8. We hope that, as was the case in Northern Ireland two years ago, the court will rule that the lack of legal recognition of humanist marriage is incompatible with the right to freedom of religion or belief and the probation of discrimination under the European Convention of Human Rights. This ruling would tell the Government that it’s failure to recognise humanist marriage is unlawful.

Show your support

If you would like to show your support, please post on social media to share your experiences of humanist wedding and what they have meant to you using the hashtag #humanistmarriage, contact your MP and keep your fingers and toes crossed as we watch this space….



More about the case

The six couples challenging this discrimination lodged their case at the High Court in November last year. Permission for the case to be heard was granted by the Court on 2 March, with the full hearing due to happen on 7-8 July. After permission was granted, the claimants offered to negotiate with the Government over possibly settling the case, particularly in light of the coronavirus pandemic, but this offer was refused. It is now hoped that the case will lead to a change in the law in time to help deal with the huge backlog of demand for marriage services that is now occurring due to the pandemic.

About the legal case

The claimants are being represented by Ciaran Moynagh of Phoenix Law, Caoilfhionn Gallagher QC of Doughty Street Chambers, and Steve McQuitty BL of the Bar Library of Northern Ireland. Humanists UK is supporting them in bringing the claim.

Read more about Humanists UK’s campaign for legal recognition of humanist marriages: humanism.org.uk/campaigns/human-rights-and-equality/marriage-laws/

About Humanists UK

Humanists UK is the national charity working on behalf of non-religious people. Powered by over 85,000 members and supporters, we advance free thinking and promote humanism to create a tolerant society where rational thinking and kindness prevail. Humanists UK provides ceremonies, pastoral care, education, and support services benefiting over a million people every year and its campaigns advance humanist thinking on ethical issues, human rights, and equal treatment for all.