Six couples are going to the High Court on 7-8 July to take a landmark challenge over the legal recognition of humanist marriages in England and Wales. Their case is being supported by Humanists UK, which has campaigned for legal recognition of humanist marriage for many decades.
The humanist couples are taking the case to try to compel the UK Government to change the law to recognise humanist weddings as legally recognised marriages, as is the case for humanist weddings in Scotland and Northern Ireland and for religious weddings across the UK. Their lawyers will argue that the current law discriminates against them because of their humanist beliefs and is therefore incompatible with human rights legislation, which precludes such discrimination.
Parliament gave the Government the power to give legal recognition to humanist marriages in 2013 but no Government has used it. In the time since then, over 6,000 couples have been denied legal recognition for their humanist wedding, either having to go to a state registrar for an unwanted second ceremony in order to gain legal recognition, or not be legally married.
The six couples challenging this discrimination lodged their case at the High Court in November last year. Permission for the case to be heard was granted by the Court on 2 March, with the full hearing due to happen on 7-8 July. After permission was granted, the claimants offered to negotiate with the Government over possibly settling the case, particularly in light of the coronavirus pandemic, but this offer was refused. It is now hoped that the case will lead to a change in the law in time to help deal with the huge backlog of demand for marriage services that is now occurring due to the pandemic.
Humanists UK Chief Executive Andrew Copson commented: “Couples who have humanist weddings see that day as the epitome of their love and commitment to each other, and all they want is the same legal recognition for that as is given to every religious person in our country. We have tried for decades to address this glaring double standard. Government has dragged its heels and that’s why it’s been left to these couples to bring this case. As more and more non-religious couples choose to have humanist weddings, we need a law that works for all people who want to marry and we hope this case will lead to reform.”
The claimants are being represented by Ciaran Moynagh of Phoenix Law, Caoilfhionn Gallagher QC of Doughty Street Chambers, and Steve McQuitty BL of the Bar Library of Northern Ireland.
Ciaran Moynagh, solicitor at law firm Phoenix Law, said: “The time for asking to be accommodated is over. The Courts are now the only appropriate and realistic method of moving this issue on. Following a successful case in Northern Ireland momentum is on our side and I believe couples who look forward to a legally recognised humanist ceremony should take great heart and hope from that.”
Conservative MP Crispin Blunt, Chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Humanist Group, and Patron of Conservative Humanists commented: “The Government has been considering bringing about legal recognition of humanist marriages for some seven years now, over three different reviews. In this context it is understandable that these six couples have given up waiting and decided to resort to legal action. Further, it has never been more urgent than it is now to extend recognition, since the coronavirus pandemic means that there is a long backlog of demand for civil marriages. Stopping people from having to have both a humanist wedding and an unwanted civil marriage in order to gain legal recognition is a clear way to unclog that backlog.”
Conservative Humanists chairman James Baird commented: “While it is sad that it has taken a High Court case to bring this issue to the full attention of the Government, that the power to grant this recognition was given some seven years ago, but has not yet been enacted makes this a necessary step to seek positive action on this issue.”