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At present, it is not possible to have a legally binding humanist, or other non‑religious belief, marriage in England and Wales (unlike in Scotland and Northern Ireland). There have been calls for reform, a previous Coalition Government consultation on this issue, and an unsuccessful legal challenge.

As part of a wider consultation on reform of the law relating to how and where marriages can take place, the Law Commission has provisionally proposed a framework that could allow non‑religious belief organisations (such as humanists) to conduct legally binding marriage ceremonies. The Government has said it will decide how to proceed in the light of the Law Commission’s recommendations, which are expected in July 2022.

Current position in England and Wales

The Marriage Act 1949 (as amended) provides for civil marriage; marriage according to the rites and ceremonies of the Church of England and the Church in Wales; Jewish and Quaker marriage; and marriage according to the rites of a recognised religion in a building that has been registered for the purpose. However, there is no specific provision for marriages to be conducted according to any non-religious system of belief, such as humanism. This means parties to a humanist marriage ceremony must have an additional ceremony (for example, at a register office) for the marriage to be legally valid. Humanists UK has campaigned for equal treatment for humanists and religious people and for the law to be changed to allow humanist celebrants to conduct legal marriages.

The current regulation of marriage is based largely on the building in which the marriage takes place, although there are some exceptions. From 1 July 2021 until 5 April 2022 (at least to begin with) civil ceremonies may take place outdoors in the grounds of approved premises. The Government has consulted on proposals to continue to permit outdoor civil marriages and civil partnerships on approved premises, and to permit outdoor religious marriages in the grounds of places of worship.

Coalition Government consultation

In 2014, following calls for legislation to facilitate humanist marriage, and in accordance with a provision in the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act 2013, the Ministry of Justice conducted a public consultation on whether the law should be changed to permit marriage according to the customs of non-religious belief organisations.

The majority of respondents to the consultation were in favour of changing the law to allow legally valid non-religious belief marriage ceremonies to take place in unrestricted locations, including outdoors. However, the Coalition Government decided that the legal and technical requirements of marriage ceremonies and registration in England and Wales should be considered more generally before, or at the same time as, making a decision on this issue.

Law Commission project

At the Coalition Government’s request, the Law Commission conducted an initial scoping review of marriage law. It found that the law was badly in need of general reform and that it would not be appropriate to legislate solely for non-religious belief organisations, as this would create further anomalies. On 28 June 2019, the Government announced the launch of a Law Commission review of the law governing how and where marriages can take place in England and Wales.

The Law Commission’s terms of reference provide that they will not make recommendations as to whether the groups who can solemnize marriages should be expanded. However, the Law Commission is required to consider how a new system could include weddings conducted by non-religious belief organisations and independent celebrants if it were decided that the law should allow these groups to perform legally binding weddings.

Law Commission consultation

On 3 September 2020, the Law Commission published Getting Married: A Consultation Paper on Weddings Law, which provisionally proposed a new scheme that would, among other things:

  • offer couples greater flexibility over the form their wedding ceremonies will take, enabling them, if they desire, to use a variety of ceremonies (religious and non-religious) to mark their weddings;
  • provide a framework that could allow non-religious belief organisations (such as humanists) and/or independent celebrants to conduct legally binding weddings.

One of the features of the new scheme is that regulation would be based on the officiant rather than on the building in which the wedding takes place. If the Government determines that non-religious belief organisations should be able to solemnize weddings, the Law Commission has provisionally proposed that these organisations would be able to nominate officiants.

What will happen next?

The Law Commission’s consultation closed on 4 January 2021. The Commission aims to publish its final report, with recommendations for Government, in July 2022.

The Government has indicated that it will wait for the Law Commission’s recommendations, which it will consider carefully, before making a decision on non‑religious belief marriage ceremonies.

Legal challenge

In July 2020, the High Court dismissed a judicial review claim, brought by six couples identifying as humanists, in respect of the Secretary of State for Justice’s failure to extend legal recognition to humanist marriages. They contended, on human rights grounds, that the legislation providing for the legal recognition of marriage in England is unjustifiably discriminatory.

Mrs Justice Eady found that, although the law treats humanists differently from those with religious beliefs, addressing the differences in treatment would not be straightforward. She said this justified the Secretary of State’s aim of considering the appropriate remedy as part of a more wholesale reform. Taking into account the on‑going review of the law of marriage, Mrs Justice Eady held that, at this time, the Secretary of State had demonstrated that a fair balance has been struck between the individual rights of the couples and those of the broader community.

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