Rehman Chishti MP to introduce Humanist Marriage Bill in Commons

Conservative MP Rehman Chishti, who was until last month the Prime Minister’s Special Envoy for Freedom of Religion or Belief, is introducing a Bill to the House of Commons today to bring about legal recognition of humanist marriages in England and Wales, with cross-party backing.

The Marriage (Authorised Belief Organisations) Bill, if it becomes law, would extend legal recognition to humanist marriages conducted by Humanists UK celebrants within three months of its passage. The Bill is being sponsored by fellow Conservative MP, and Conservative Humanists patron, Crispin Blunt, as well as Labour MPs Angela Eagle, Steve McCabe, Jeff Smith, and Rachel Hopkins, and Lib Dem MPs Wera Hobhouse and Daisy Cooper.

Conservative Humanists chairman, James Baird commented: “It’s great to see this campaign, which has been in the pipeline for years finally moving towards a resolution. I would very much hope that following the High Court verdict back in July, which found the non-recognition of Humanist marriage ‘discriminatory’, this bill will quickly become law.”

Rehman Chishti, MP for Gillingham and Rainham, commented: ‘The lack of legal recognition of humanist marriages in England and Wales is discrimination, pure and simple. This matter has been under review for some seven years now, and that’s more than long enough. My Bill would bring about legal recognition of humanist marriages within three months of its passage, thus enabling the many who want a legally recognised humanist marriage to be able to have one now. It would not prevent further changes to the law, after the completion of the present Law Commission review, but would remedy the present discrimination.’

Crispin Blunt, Conservative MP for Reigate and Co-Chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Humanist Group, commented: ‘The fact that the recently departed Prime Minister’s Special Envoy for Freedom of Religion or Belief has chosen to bring this Bill before the Commons should send a very strong message to the Government: the lack of legal recognition of humanist marriages is one of the most serious forms of belief-based discrimination in the UK today. Scotland, Northern Ireland, and the Republic of Ireland have all long-since extended such recognition. What is stopping the UK Government from doing the same?’

In the recent High Court case on humanist marriage, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief, Ahmed Shaheed, provided evidence saying that the lack of legal recognition in England and Wales is unlawful. He also commented: ‘It is increasingly unusual internationally for liberal democracies to not give legal recognition to humanist marriages.’ The only general exception is if they follow a French-style system of not allowing religious marriages either.

Humanists UK Chief Executive Andrew Copson commented: ‘We are delighted that Rehman Chishti has chosen to bring forward this Bill. Extending legal recognition to humanist marriages would be fair, it would be popular, it would be good for marriage, and good for the economy. We urge the Government to support it.’

More about humanist weddings

A humanist wedding is a non-religious ceremony conducted by a humanist celebrant who shares the beliefs and values of the couple. It differs from a civil wedding in that it is entirely personalised and reflective of the humanist beliefs and values of the couple. Humanists UK has provided these ceremonies for many decades.

In England and Wales, prior to the pandemic, over 1,000 couples a year were having a humanist wedding without legal recognition. They all must have a separate civil marriage – usually at a registrar’s office – for their marriage to be legally recognised, even though it is not what they want. Couples must go through formalities twice, leading to financial strain, and distress over the state failing to recognise their humanist wedding as their ‘real’ one.

Humanist marriages were legally recognised in Scotland in 2005, the Republic of Ireland in 2012, Northern Ireland in 2018, and Jersey in 2019, and they will gain legal recognition in Guernsey in 2021.

Context of the Bill

The Bill is being introduced following a High Court decision in July that the long-running failure to provide for legally recognised humanist marriages – which have been the subject of three reviews over the last seven years – means that ‘the present law gives rise to… discrimination’. She also ruled that, in light of that, the Secretary of State for Justice ‘cannot… simply sit on his hands’ and do nothing.

That failure also recently caused problems in terms of how humanist weddings are treated under the coronavirus regulations: in September the Government inadvertently limited attendance at humanist weddings in England to six, while legally recognised marriages could have 15. However, in the latest coronavirus regulations last week, the Government made specific provision for 15 people to attend humanist weddings – the first time there have been provisions in English law to provide for humanist weddings.

Humanist marriages are currently being reviewed as part of a wholescale Law Commission review of marriage law. However, it follows on from two previous Government reviews into the matter spanning back to the 2013 Marriage Act. And on its current schedule, if this review is to result in any change in the law at all, it might only be expected to do so by 2023. Given the ongoing discrimination, humanists have been pushing for interim reform, to ensure that the 1,000 couples a year that already have a humanist wedding do not miss out, and to safeguard against a potential failure of the wholescale review to result in legislation. That is what Rehman Chishti hopes his Bill will achieve.