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Humanist wedding conducted by celebrant Simon Smith (photo: Simon Smith).

Battle for legal recognition of humanist marriages goes to High Court

Humanist couples are taking the government to court in an attempt to oblige it to recognise humanist marriages. The case is supported by Humanists UK and humanist celebrants, including several based in Sussex. Nick Terdre reports.

Six couples are bringing a landmark challenge to the government’s refusal to grant legal recognition to humanist marriages. Their case is being supported by humanist celebrants accredited by Humanists UK to offer humanist wedding ceremonies, including Sussex-based celebrants.

The case will be heard in the High Court on 7 and 8 July, when their lawyers will argue that the current law in England and Wales discriminates against them because of their humanist beliefs and is therefore incompatible with human rights legislation.

Humanist weddings have been recognised as legal in Scotland since 2005 and Northern Ireland since 2018, but although in 2013 Parliament voted the government the power to give legal recognition to humanist marriages in England and Wales, succeeding governments – David Cameron’s, Theresa May’s and now Boris Johnson’s – have declined to use it.

In a 2019 YouGov survey, 69% of the public supported the legal recognition of humanist marriages. In that year humanist marriages accounted for 23% of marriages in Scotland, for the first time outnumbering Christian marriages.

A humanist wedding is a non-religious ceremony conducted by a humanist celebrant who shares the beliefs and values of the couple, says Humanists UK. It differs from a civil wedding in that it is entirely personalised and reflective of the humanist beliefs and values of the couple. Such ceremonies have been provided by the group for many decades.

Since 2013 over 6,000 couples in England and Wales have been denied legal recognition of their humanist wedding, leaving them with the choice of either having to go to a state registrar for an unwanted second ceremony in order to gain legal recognition, or of not being legally married.

Double standard

”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,” said Humanists UK chief executive Andrew Copson. “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.”

“Threshold events in life such as births, coming of age, marriages and death have always been celebrated and form part of the glue that holds society together,” Stephen Milton of Hastings Humanists told HOT.

“Historically the church managed to hold a monopoly on all these events and they recognised the power that it bestowed, so would never give it up easily. Many people have already chosen humanist celebrants to help them create these ceremonies in new ways which do not grate on their systems of belief.

“In today’s society, where a majority of people self-declare a more secular view of the world, it is important that we have the freedom to develop new ceremonies that underscore the social meaning and significance of major events without impediment.

“Let’s hope the High Court will support this freedom.”

After permission to bring their case was granted in March, 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.

East and West Sussex celebrants supporting this legal action are Madeleine Cooper (Hastings), John Morrison (Eastbourne), Felicity Harvest (Wadhurst), Katy Barrett, Justine Chase Grey and Simon Smith (Brighton and Hove), Nick Myers (Worthing) and Jane Blackman (Arundel).


More about Humanists UK, a national charity working on behalf of non-religious people, and their campaign for the legal recognition of humanist marriages.


Posted 17:16 Saturday, Jul 4, 2020 In: Campaigns

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