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Current position in England and Wales

The law in England and Wales permits both civil marriage and religious marriage. However, there is no specific provision for marriages to be conducted according to any non‑religious system of belief, such as humanism. At present, therefore, it is not possible to have a legally binding humanist marriage in England and Wales. 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. 

Coalition Government consultation

Following calls for legislation to facilitate humanist marriage, the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act 2013 provided for a review of whether the law should be changed to permit marriage according to the usages of non-religious belief organisations, to include a full public consultation, with a report of the outcome to be published by the end of 2014. This Act also gives the Secretary of State power to make provision, by order, permitting marriages according to the usages of belief organisations.

Accordingly, in 2014, the Ministry of Justice conducted a public consultation. 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 

The Coalition Government asked the Law Commission to conduct a review of the law governing how and where people can marry in England and Wales. The Law Commission’s initial scoping review of marriage law found there was a need for a wholescale review of the law in this area. The Commission considered that legislating solely to allow non-religious belief organisations to solemnize marriages would not solve any of the other problems in the current law and would not achieve certainty, simplicity, fairness or equality (PDF).

The Law Commission’s terms of reference (PDF) for their project provided that they would not make recommendations as to whether the groups who can solemnize marriages should be expanded. However, the Law Commission was required to consider how a new system could include weddings conducted by non-religious belief organisations and independent celebrants, if the Government decided that the law should allow these groups to perform legally binding weddings.

Following consultation (PDF), in July 2022, the Law Commission published a report (PDF) which set out recommendations to reform weddings law. The Law Commission said it was recommending “comprehensive reform from the foundations up: an entirely new scheme to govern weddings”. One of the features of the proposed new scheme is that regulation would be based on the officiant rather than on the building in which the wedding takes place, as at present.

The recommendations would enable non-religious belief organisations, such as humanists, to conduct legally binding weddings, on the same basis as religious organisations, if the Government decides to enable non‑religious belief organisations to do this. Officiants could be nominated by non-religious belief organisations.

Government position

The Government is considering wholesale reform of marriage law rather than piecemeal reform relating only to humanist marriage, which might create further anomalies.

The Government has said it will consider the Law Commission’s recommendations and hopes to be able to publish an initial response in the first part of 2023. It has declined, meanwhile, to lay an Order under the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act 2013 on an interim basis pending further reform of marriage law.

Support for reform 

The All-Party Parliamentary Humanist Group (PDF) and the Welsh Government are among those who have supported calls for reform of the law. There have been calls for interim reform without waiting for any legislation which results from the Law Commission’s recommendations. In January 2022, 53 members of both Houses wrote to the Lord Chancellor urging immediate legal recognition of humanist marriages

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 provide for state recognition of humanist marriages under English law. 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 that time, the Secretary of State had demonstrated that a fair balance had been struck between the individual rights of the couples and those of the broader community.

Position in Scotland and Northern Ireland

Legally recognised humanist marriages can take place in Scotland.

Humanist celebrants may be authorised to solemnize civil marriages in Northern Ireland. In July 2022, following consultation, the Northern Ireland  Finance Minister, Conor Murphy, announced that preparations would be made to change the law to put belief marriage on an equal footing with religious marriage. He said it would only be possible to bring forward and enact this legislation once there is a functioning Assembly and Executive.

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