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

Commons bills offers glimmer of hope for legalisation of humanist weddings

Following the failure of a High Court application this summer to secure legal status for humanist weddings, a private member’s bill is now seeking the same end in the Commons. If this also fails, it is likely humanists will have to wait at least until 2023, when the Government is expected to implement recommendations for changes in wedding law from the Law Commission. Nick Terdre reports.

A private member’s bill with cross-party backing was tabled in the Commons last week which, if passed, will extend legal recognition to humanist marriages conducted by Humanists UK celebrants in England and Wales within three months of its passage – humanist marriages are already legal in Scotland, Northern Ireland and Jersey, and will become so in Guernsey next year.

Private members’ bills have a notoriously low level of approval mainly due to government opposition. In this case, Richy Thompson, director of Public Affairs and Policy for Humanists UK, told HOT, “It’s unlikely to become law, but […]it does provide the Government an opportunity to show its support for humanist marriages. If it chooses not to take up that opportunity, then that would be disappointing.”

The main sponsor of the bill is the Tory MP Rehman Chishti, until recently the Prime Minister’s Special Envoy for Freedom of Religion or Belief. ‘The fact that [he] has chosen to bring this Bill before the Commons should send a very strong message to the Government,” said Crispin Blunt, another MP backing the bill. “The lack of legal recognition of humanist marriages is one of the most serious forms of belief-based discrimination in the UK today.”

Victoria Hosegood and Charli Janeway, one of six humanist couples which brought a High Court Action in July (photo: Humanists UK).

The move in the Commons follows the refusal of the High Court in July to grant an application by six humanist couples for a ruling against the Government’s failure to grant legal recognition to humanist marriages.

While accepting that “the present law gives rise to… discrimination,” the judge, Mrs Justice Eady, decided not to make a ruling on the grounds that the matter was already being addressed by an wide-scale review of marriage law by the Law Commission.

Disappointment

Humanists UK said it welcomed the court making clear that the failure to provide legal recognition of humanist marriages could not be justified other than by saying that there was a review to redress the issue, but expressed disappointment at the Government being given more time to resolve it, particularly given how long humanist couples have already had to wait for legal recognition.

“In England and Wales, the Marriage Act 2013 created a new category of legally recognised marriage in England and Wales – ‘marriages according to the usages of belief based organisations,’ Stephen Milton of Hastings Humanists told HOT.

“This category was created by the UK Parliament so that the Government could enact legal recognition of humanist marriages by secondary legislation. But in the many years since, the Government has still not enacted this. With over 1,000 couples a year already having humanist wedding ceremonies that are not legally recognised, Humanists are urging the UK Government to act swiftly and bring about legal recognition.

“It is so absurd that people can get married under a religious celebration and it will be legally recognised, but if they have a marriage with a Humanist celebrant it will have no legal standing, so they have to repeat the process with a civil registrar in order for it to have legal weight.”

The protections afforded by giving legal status to humanist weddings are important, Milton said. “They can have very far reaching effects on everything from pension rights to hospital access if one party gets sick, and to the division of property in the event of the marriage failing in divorce – they are not a trivial matter to be brushed under the carpet.”

The Commission is due to give its final report in the second half of 2021. Projecting that forward, that means the soonest legislation is likely to come into force is mid-2023, if it does at all, Thompson told HOT. The Government has not formally committed to making humanist weddings legal.

Dragging heels

Ever since Parliament voted powers for the Government to legalise humanist marriages in 2013, successive justice ministers have found reasons to drag their heels, culminating in the decision last year to order a complete review of wedding law by the Law Commission.

After an initial scoping review, the Commission put forward a number of proposals, including a provision for non-religious belief organisations, such as humanists and/or independent celebrants, to conduct legally binding weddings.

Further changes are also proposed, such as ending the restriction whereby marriages can only legally be conducted in a place of worship or a licensed secular venue, but not outdoors or even in the garden of a licensed venue.

A consultation on the proposals was launched in September and runs until early December.

 

Information on the Law Commission’s consultation on wedding law reform and how to submit comments can be found here. The deadline is 3 December.

Posted 18:35 Tuesday, Oct 27, 2020 In: Campaigns

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