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Legalising humanist marriage

Watch humanist Laura Lacole describe her work to legalise humanist marriages in Northern Ireland

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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