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Legalising humanist marriage

Watch humanist Laura Lacole describe her work to legalise humanist marriages in Northern Ireland
My now husband and I are both humanists so naturally whenever he proposed, we began planning and realised that, of course, we want a humanist ceremony and they’re not legally recognised in Northern Ireland, where we were both from, and that to us was an issue because when we looked into it, we find that a diverse range of different beliefs are recognised in Northern Ireland law so we couldn’t really see any reason why ours was of lesser value, and we really wanted to challenge that because for us to have the marriage that would be true to us and who we are fundamentally as individuals and a couple, we needed it to be a humanist ceremony and we knew that we wouldn’t be the only people in that position.
So we decided that we would challenge the law.
We couldn’t understand why we’d be treated any differently, that was really hard for us to accept. Especially because we know that there’s so many other people in our position - it wasn’t fair. We just want to be accepted as equal and as equal as other beliefs, and we don’t want to ever take away from anyone, we were just asking for the same.
Getting the win was really incredible for us personally but also for the countless other people in Northern Ireland who are not religious and wanted to have a ceremony that embody them as people and their beliefs.
Our wedding ceremony was really beautiful and personal to us. We had - it was all about our story and how we got to that present day. What we loved most about one another, and we were able to incorporate our loved ones in the ceremony. And that was really special, and it was just about us and our love for one another, and that’s not something that we could have had from a civil ceremony or a religious ceremony. We had the total flexibility to choose our own vows, we wrote our own vows, but even the structure of the ceremony, we were able to completely build from scratch and shape it however we wanted it to be.
It was totally flexible and it’s all about what is important to us - totally bespoke - and I just couldn’t even imagine having a ceremony that would be anything other than that.
I think it’s really important for humanists to continue on this path of challenging outdated laws and outdated human rights because I feel as though it’s chipping away at something that’s outdated, and we are moving forward one case at a time, one action at a time, towards a much better future. It’s not just about a better future for humanists, it’s a better future for everybody.

Laura Lacole is a model and activist. She is a founding member of Atheist NI, the first atheist organisation in Northern Ireland. She is a Patron of Humanists UK.

A humanist wedding is a non-religious ceremony that is deeply personal and conducted by a humanist celebrant. It differs from a civil wedding in that it is entirely hand-crafted and reflective of the humanist beliefs and values of the couple, conducted by a celebrant who shares their beliefs and values.

It is currently possible to have a humanist wedding ceremony anywhere in the UK. However, in England and Wales a humanist wedding does not carry any legal force. Only religious or civil wedding ceremonies can also be legal marriages.

Many believe the law currently discriminates against humanists. Religious people in the UK are able to mark their marriage with a ceremony that fits their worldview. But humanists need to have a civil marriage on top of their humanist ceremony to gain legal recognition. Having two ceremonies obviously carries an additional expense: a civil ceremony can cost hundreds of pounds. Humanists will often want a ceremony that is personal and meaningful to them and reflects their beliefs. It is the humanist ceremony that they feel is the moment that truly reflects their marriage to each other.

Human rights law should guarantee that the state does not discriminate on the basis of religion or belief, and that references in law to ‘religion’ is to be read in a way that is inclusive of non-religious worldviews such as humanism. It is on that basis that legal recognition of humanist marriages came about in Scotland and Northern Ireland. In Scotland humanist marriages became legally recognised in 2005. The Scottish Government recognised the human rights case to treat humanists equally to religious people. In 2017, in Northern Ireland, Laura Lacole and Eunan O’Kane took their case for a legally recognised humanist marriage to court on human rights grounds and won.

However, the UK Government has not extended that recognition to humanist ceremonies in England and Wales. Since 2013 the Government has had the power to do this simply by order. This means that the act of Parliament that enables humanist marriages is already in place. The Government has simply chosen not to bring that law into force. For humanists this is particularly frustrating.

Humanists UK campaigns to see the law changed in England and Wales so that humanists can have access to the same opportunities as religious people to have the marriage ceremony they want. Since the introduction of legal humanist marriages in Scotland, their popularity has soared. Today some 20 percent of legal marriages in Scotland are humanist, and Humanist Society Scotland carries out more marriages than either the Church of Scotland or the Catholic Church. Humanists believe that the demand would be no less great in England and Wales.

Question: Should humanist marriages be legally recognised?

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Humanist Lives, with Alice Roberts

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