Ten years in limbo: legal recognition of humanist marriages long overdue

Sitting in the gallery of the House of Lords ten years ago, I was so happy to be part of the passing of the Same-Sex Marriage Act. It was an historic moment for same-sex couples and for UK society as a whole. It was also an extra delight because, as well as immediately providing for same-sex marriages in England and Wales, the new law introduced a new legal category for humanist marriages and a mechanism by which the UK Government could, with ease, introduce those marriages whenever it chose. Unfortunately, ten years later the Government has still not done so.

In the months following the passing of this Act, we met many times with Government officials and had many encouraging meetings where we were assured that progress was just around the corner. The reason for a few months of delay was put down to the need to carry out a consultation. Fair enough.

A decade later however, thousands of couples have been let down, denied the marriage of their choice. I know many couples who’ve gone through the frustrating process of having two ceremonies: the personalised, values-driven and authentic humanist ceremony that aligns with their beliefs, and then the civil marriage with a registrar that’s required to be married in the eyes of the law. It’s an expensive two tier system. I also know couples who have chosen not to marry at all, some for over a decade, waiting in humanist limbo.

The case for legal recognition is a strong one, so strong in fact that when six humanist couples took a case to the High Court in 2020, the Judge said that ‘the present law gives rise to discrimination’. She ruled in favour of the Government on the basis of a then ongoing Law Commission marriage review and that the Justice Secretary’s ‘stated desire to consider any reform on a wholesale rather than piecemeal basis’ was legitimate. But three years later, we’re still waiting – that review having long since finished.

In Scotland, where they gained legal recognition in 2005, humanist marriages have risen in number from 85 in the first year to over 6,000 in 2021 – some 26% of the total. In Northern Ireland where they were legally recognised five years ago, they are the fastest growing type of marriage. Public support is also high, with a YouGov poll revealing that nearly 70% of the British public support the legal recognition of humanist marriages in England and Wales.

One thing that is promising is that the UK Opposition does support our calls. In 2021 the Labour frontbench called for their immediate legal recognition highlighting the Government’s ‘total blind spot’ when it came to humanist marriages. Nonetheless, we continue to call for the Government to enact recognition of humanist marriages as soon as possible. If it continues to delay, it risks leaving all the credit to Labour for what will prove to be a hugely popular reform.

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