Opinion Former Article

Northern Ireland Court of Appeal stays humanist marriage case pending further negotiations

The Northern Ireland Court of Appeal has today heard the Government’s appeal to the Belfast High Court ruling extending legal recognition to humanist marriages in Northern Ireland. At the conclusion of the hearing, the Court decided to issue a further stay on the High Court ruling, in order that the different parties in the case can have more time to attempt to negotiate a compromise solution.

History of the case

In June, the High ruled that the lack of legal recognition to humanist marriages in Northern Ireland breaks human rights law, by privileging religious believers (who can have legal marriages) over humanists. The ruling followed a claim taken by humanists Laura Lacole, a model and public speaker, and Eunan O’Kane, a Leeds United and Republic of Ireland midfielder, who wanted to have a humanist marriage. Humanists UK has been supporting the couple in their claim.

That decision was subsequently appealed by the Northern Ireland Government to the Court of Appeal, which initially issued a stay on the decision, albeit while uniquely letting Laura and Eunan have their legal humanist wedding ceremony. Laura and Eunan’s wedding ceremony took place on 22 June. Today the Court of Appeal resumed its hearing, to consider whether other couples should also be allowed to have legal humanist marriages.

Humanists UK Chief Executive Andrew Copson commented, ‘It was a privilege and a joy to attend Laura and Eunan’s legal humanist marriage and hear them share their vows in a ceremony reflecting their humanist beliefs and their love. The idea that other couples should now be prevented from having that same right and opportunity is reprehensible. Humanist marriages are already legal in Scotland and the Republic of Ireland, and we can’t see why non-religious people in Northern Ireland deserve anything less. Humanists UK will now be entering negotiations with the Registrar General, and very much hope that proves possible.’

Laura Lacole commented, ‘All Eunan and I wanted is a legal marriage ceremony that reflects our personal beliefs and desires, and for us that means a humanist ceremony. When such ceremonies are already given legal recognition in Scotland and the Republic of Ireland, I struggle to see what the difficulty is in extending recognition to Northern Ireland too. We have now had our legal humanist wedding ceremony, but for the sake of many, many other couples like us, we very much hope that this extension to others is able to happen.’

Details of today’s decision

The Court today decided to again stay the decision, while inviting the parties to explore an alternative avenue to that which had been considered before, namely that the Registrar General can under section 31(3) of the Marriage (Northern Ireland) Order 2003 ‘appoint additional persons to solemnise civil marriages and carry out other functions’. Humanists UK has now been invited to work with a number of its celebrants to apply to be able to solemnise humanist marriages through this section.

Laura and Eunan’s celebrant had initially applied for authorisation (and won at the High Court) under section 14 - ‘temporary authorisation of religious marriage’ - successfully arguing that this should be reinterpreted to also cover belief-based marriages.

About humanist weddings

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.

Legal recognition has already had a transformative effect on Scottish and Irish society. In Scotland, humanist marriages gained legal recognition in 2005, and have risen in number from 85 in the first year to over 4,900 in 2016, overtaking the Church of Scotland in the process. In the Republic of Ireland, humanist marriages gained legal recognition in 2012. In 2016 around seven percent of legal marriages were humanist, more than four times as many as there were (Protestant) Church of Ireland marriages.

In England and Wales, marriage law is different from in Northern Ireland and Scotland. But as the case was taken on human rights grounds, the underlying principles are very similar, and so this case may have some impact. Since 2013 the UK Government has had the power to extend legal recognition if it wishes, but hasn’t chosen to use this power yet.

Notes

For further comment or information, please contact Humanists UK Director of Public Affairs and Policy Richy Thompson on richy@humanism.org.uk or 0781 55 89 636, or Northern Ireland Humanists Coordinator Boyd Sleator on boyd.sleator@nihumanists.org or on 07470 395090.

Laura Lacole is also available for interviews, which can be arranged through Richy.

Laura and Eunan have today released an image from their wedding which media are free to use: https://humanism.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/Eunan-Laura-OKane.jpg

Press are also free to use further images made available by the couple:

Image 1: https://humanism.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/20161006-307934809.jpg
Image 2: https://humanism.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2017-05-09_08.58.46.jpg
Image 3: https://humanism.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/12132490_776745909119411_6736818170228114657_o-1.jpg
Read the previous news item, on success at the High Court: https://humanism.org.uk/2017/06/09/success-couple-win-challenge-to-lack-of-legal-recognition-of-humanist-marriages-in-northern-ireland/

Read the news item on the outcome of the first Court of Appeal hearing: https://humanism.org.uk/2017/06/19/first-legal-humanist-wedding-ceremony-in-northern-ireland-will-go-ahead-thursday/

Read more about Humanists UK’s campaigns around marriage laws: https://humanism.org.uk/campaigns/human-rights-and-equality/marriage-laws/

At Humanists UK, we advance free thinking and promote humanism to create a tolerant society where rational thinking and kindness prevail. Our work brings non-religious people together to develop their own views, helping people be happier and more fulfilled in the one life we have. Through our ceremonies, education services, and community and campaigning work, we strive to create a fair and equal society for all.

Humanists UK recently changed its name from the British Humanist Association: https://humanism.org.uk/2017/05/22/bha-becomes-humanists-uk/

Northern Ireland Humanists is a part of Humanists UK, working with the Humanist Association of Ireland.

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