By Tim Wyatt
Six couples will launch a legal action next week (7 July 2020) in the High Court in an attempt to win the right to hold humanist weddings in England and Wales.
Although both Scotland and Northern Ireland have offered the option of a humanist ceremony for several years and parliament voted to give the government the power to permit similar weddings in England Wales in 2013, they remain unavailable.
WHAT’S HAPPENING ENGLAND AND WALES?
If a couple do not wish to have a religious wedding ceremony, where a minister is also able to simultaneously legally solemnise the proceedings, the only other way is by civil ceremony.
Civil weddings cannot have any religious content and normally last only 10 to 15 minutes, although couples are permitted to include some readings or music of their choice.
Some humanist couples want to include more of their shared but secular values in the service than is possible in a standard civil register office wedding. A humanist celebration is not now legally recognised and so couples must separately also procure a civil ceremony.
WHAT IS A HUMANIST WEDDING?
It is a wedding ceremony that is non-religious but still reflects the values and beliefs of humanism (which is broadly the belief that the universe is a purely natural phenomenon with no supernatural or spiritual side, but that people can still live ethical lives based on reason and science).
The weddings are conducted by a humanist celebrant, of which there are a network of about 400 organised and trained by Humanists UK. Anyone who shares the values of humanism, has good personal, organisational and presentational skills, and is prepared to undergo three sessions of training can become a celebrant.
Unlike civil ceremonies, which are conducted by a registrar and mostly must abide to a defined format, humanist weddings can be bespoke proceedings involving expressions of the couple’s values and beliefs. Also unlike civil or religious weddings — because humanist weddings are not yet recognised in law — they can take place in locations so far forbidden by marriage legislation, such as outdoors.
According to Humanists UK, about 1,000 couples a year hold a humanist wedding in England and Wales.
WHAT DOES THE CASE HOPE TO ACHIEVE?
The six couples will argue that current rules in England and Wales discriminate against humanists. The case was lodged at the High Court in November and the couples, who are being backed by the charity Humanists UK, were given permission to proceed to a hearing in March.
Humanists want the British government to change the law so that the situation in England Wales is brought into line with that which already exists in Scotland (which recognised humanist weddings in 2005) and Northern Ireland (which did the same in 2018). Last year, the number of humanist weddings in Scotland (23 per cent of the total contracted) overtook the number of Christian weddings for the first time.
The six couples each argue they are being discriminated against because they cannot have the meaningful but non-religious ceremony without then having to hold a separate civil ceremony afterwards.
They include one couple from Northern Ireland, who could already have a legally recognised humanist wedding there but are instead waiting because they want to hold it at a particular beach in north Devon where they went on their first holiday.
Another couple from Lincolnshire involved in the case have pledged not to get married until humanist celebrations are fully legalised.
WHAT IS THE HISTORY HERE?
Only religious weddings in certain contexts are also recognised in law. Those conducted by Anglican clergy (or north of the border, by ministers of the Church of Scotland) were historically the only legally valid marriages until the situation was brought into statue law for the first time in the mid 18th-century.
In 1753 this was extended to include Quaker and Jewish weddings, and in 1836 civil weddings came into being. From then onwards, other Christian denominations, including Roman Catholicism, and later other faiths entirely, could have their clergy to act as registrars to solemnise weddings.
However, for such a wedding to be legally recognised, it must take place in an approved wedding venue such as a place of worship for example a mosque or temple, and it must be carried out in the presence of someone authorised by the local registrar to register weddings.
This remains the case today in England and Wales, which means religious weddings by non-Christian or Jewish faiths are not recognised. Most recently this issue came to the fore in February, when the Court of Appeal overturned a ground-breaking 2018 ruling that decided a Muslim couple’s Islamic wedding in a restaurant in 1998 was legally valid. The question of the legal validity of Islamic, Hindu or Sikh weddings most commonly arises when couples separate and only then discover that, because in the eyes of the law they are not married, they have no divorce rights.
Unlike Muslims, Sikhs or Hindus, a wedding ceremony held according to humanist principles – even one in an approved venue and with a recognised registrar as officiant – must always also undergo a civil wedding in addition, because humanist weddings fall between the two categories of wedding in law of religious ceremonies or civil ceremonies.
However, the Marriage (Same-Sex Couples) Act 2013 included a clause creating a new category of wedding in England and Welsh law: “Marriages according to the usages of belief based organisations.” This gave the government the authority to legally recognise humanist weddings through secondary legislation, without any new law being passed or amended. The government has asked the Law Commission to hold two reviews, in 2015 and 2018.
Humanists UK have been campaigning for a change in the law for more than 20 years and regularly conduct polls showing wide scale public support for reform.
WHAT DO THE FAITHS THINK?
Many faith groups are in favour of extending the right to conduct legally binding weddings to humanists. A range of religious figures, including senior rabbis, Quaker leaders and others have given evidence as part of the High Court case.
Other large denominations have previously stated they have no objection to humanist weddings becoming recognised in law.
The Church of England responded to the 2014 consultation by saying it was “sympathetic to the case”.
“The Church of England is very well aware from its own experience that a marriage ceremony where the officiant shares openly the beliefs of the couple can be a source of strength in a marriage and would not wish to deny that opportunity to couples who profess humanist beliefs,” the submission said.
It did, however, note that humanist material was allowed in civil register office weddings, whereas all religious content was prohibited and any change in the law should not “exacerbate” this existing “imbalance”.
Andrew Copson, chief executive of Humanists UK. email@example.com
Ciaran Moynagh, solicitor representing the six couples. firstname.lastname@example.org, 028 90 32 8383
Crispin Blunt, Conservative MP and chairman of the All-Party Parliamentary Humanist Group. email@example.com, 020 7219 2254
Janet Daby, Labour MP and shadow minister for faith and belief. firstname.lastname@example.org
Callum Brown, social and cultural historian and expert in humanism and secularism at Glasgow University. email@example.com, 0141 330 3382
Stephen Law, philosopher and author of Humanism: A Very Short Introduction. firstname.lastname@example.org,
Linda Woodhead, Professor of sociology of religion at Lancaster University. email@example.com, 01524 510819