The law in England and Wales permits both civil marriage and religious marriage. However, there is no specific provision for marriages to be conducted according to any other system of belief, such as humanism.
It is not possible in England and Wales to have a legally binding humanist marriage. Therefore parties to a humanist marriage ceremony must have an additional ceremony, for example, at a register office, for the marriage to be legally valid.
This is something that Humanists UK has campaigned against stating that there should be equal treatment for humanists and religious people and for the law to be changed to allow humanist celebrants to conduct legal marriages.
The Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act 2013 provided for a review of whether the law should be changed to allow such marriages to be legally valid. The Law Commission undertook the review and their initial view was that a wholescale review was needed. Some 8 years later in July 2022, the Law Commission set out its recommendations to reform the marriage laws.
One proposal welcomed by many engaged couples is that regulation would be based on the officiant rather than on the building in which the wedding takes place, as at present. Therefore, this would open up many possibilities for new arrangements such as outside weddings being legally valid.
The recommendations would also enable non-religious belief organisations, such as humanists, to conduct legally binding weddings, on the same basis as religious organisations.
These are only recommendations and the Government need to consider these to decide whether there should be a change in the law. In January 2022, 53 members of both Houses wrote to the Lord Chancellor urging immediate legal recognition of humanist marriages. Their initial views on this are due later this year.
If these reforms are introduced there will also need to be further consideration of the Divorce laws. Currently if a couple have a Humanist marriage, as this is not legally valid they do not need to apply for a Divorce and most will, upon separation, opt for a Separation agreement drafted by a solicitor. However, if the proposals are incorporated into law, couples who have a humanist marriage will also need to apply for a divorce in the unfortunate event of a breakdown of the marriage.
In contrast, legally recognised humanist marriages can take place in Scotland.
Humanist celebrants may be authorised to solemnize civil marriages in Northern Ireland. In July 2022, the Northern Ireland Finance Minister, announced that preparations would be made to change the law to put belief marriage on an equal footing with religious marriage. However this will only be possible to bring forward and enact this legislation once there is a functioning Assembly and Executive.
There is no change to the law at present, however discussions have picked up the pace so a change to the law regarding the validity of non-religious marriage may be on its way.
Published on 21 June 2023