Humanist marriage: MPs call for legal recognition of ceremonies

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Humanist marriage: MPs call for legal recognition of ceremonies
A couple at their humanist wedding ceremonyImage source, The Humble Photography Co
Image caption,
Humanist marriages do not have legal recognition in England and Wales

The UK government's failure to legally recognise humanist marriages in England and Wales is "discriminatory", MPs have argued, as they called for marriage reform.

Humanist weddings are non-religious ceremonies that are personal and conducted by a celebrant.

Currently, humanist couples need to have a civil marriage with a registrar to gain legal recognition.

In a debate, MPs said such couples were treated like "second-class citizens".

In a personal speech, Labour MP Rachel Hopkins, who described herself as a humanist, said it was "discriminatory that humanist weddings are still not recognised".

Ahead of the debate on Thursday, 53 MPs and peers signed a joint letter urging the UK government to immediately legally recognise humanist marriages in England and Wales.

The letter calls on the government to give humanists "the same freedom of choice to marry in line with their beliefs as their religious counterparts".

Rachel HopkinsImage source, UK Parliament
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Labour MP Rachel Hopkins said the failure to legally recognise humanist marriages was "discriminatory"

In England and Wales, marriages and civil partnerships are largely certified at registered buildings or venues approved by local councils.

Campaign group Humanists UK says more than 1,000 couples a year are having humanist wedding ceremonies, which can be conducted anywhere, including outdoors.

Humanist marriages have been legally recognised in Scotland since 2005, Northern Ireland since 2018, Jersey since 2019, and Guernsey since this year.

'No reason to delay'

The letter from MPs says the UK government has had the power to recognise humanist marriages since the 2013 Marriage Act took effect but has not yet acted.

Instead, the matter has been subject to several reviews, including a consultation by the Ministry of Justice, published in December 2014.

That consultation found that 94% of respondents were in favour of giving legal recognition to non-religious marriages ceremonies in unrestricted locations.

But successive governments have decided review marriage law more generally before making a decision on recognising humanist ceremonies.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson's government has said it would wait for the outcome of a Law Commission review on marriage, due in July, to avoid piecemeal law reform.

But the letter from MPs says his argument had been "fundamentally undermined by the government's recent announcement of a consultation to introduce outdoor marriage".

"We see no reason for humanists to wait any longer," the letter says.

'Marriage laws are outdated'

The topic was debated in Westminster Hall after the letter was sent to Justice Secretary Dominic Raab.

Opening the debate, Conservative MP Crispin Blunt said the requirement for a separate civil ceremony placed a financial and emotional burden on humanist couples.

"Couples face distressing questions from loved ones about when their real marriage is," said Mr Blunt.

He said legislation to grant humanist weddings legal recognition could be easily passed by parliament.

Labour MP Nia Griffith asked why humanists should "have to feel that they are second-class citizens, that their celebration does not count."

She added: "Our laws in respect of religion are indeed very outdated and really do not reflect the current beliefs of the population. Our legislation has a lot of catching up to do to reflect the society we live in."

Conservative MP Crispin BluntImage source, Parliament TV
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Conservative MP Crispin Blunt opened the debate in Westminster Hall

She referenced a High Court ruling in July 2020., which saw because the law treats them differently from those with religious beliefs.

The judge in the case agreed, but said the government's position was justified "at this time" because it was undertaking a wider review of marriage law.

At Thursday's debate, Conservative minister Tom Pursglove said the government would wait for the Law Commission's recommendations before acting.

"Legislation to allow humanist marriages now would pre-empt the Law Commission's report, which is expected to provide a framework that could allow for humanist weddings," Mr Pursglove said.

"While I recognise the frustration that many have felt waiting for the publication of the report, we believe in government that it is right that we do this properly."

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