Opinion Former Article

New coronavirus law provides for 15 at religious weddings, but only six at humanist

New coronavirus regulations coming into force in England today provide for religious and civil marriages to have up to 15 gathered in attendance, but make no such provision for humanist weddings. Instead it is specified that they ‘must be limited to 6 attendees’. This is in contrast to the previous regulations, which allowed 30 at all types of wedding. Since the problem came to light on Thursday, Humanists UK has been working with Government officials to fix the problem, but unfortunately to no avail. Today Humanists UK has expressed serious frustration at the ‘bewildering, sudden’ new discrepancy being introduced without consultation, and has called for the Government to change the provisions to make them equal for all.

However, the new regulations, which were made last week just hours after the new rules were announced, unexpectedly withdrew the ‘significant event gatherings’ provision, instead only allowing up to 15 at legally recognised marriages. That includes religious marriages, but as it doesn’t include humanist weddings, they consequently default to the general limit of six.The problems have arisen in large part because of the Government’s persistent failure over the last seven years (and in stark contrast to all other governments in the UK and in Ireland) to extend legal recognition to humanist weddings. Up to now, that failure has not led to further complications under the coronavirus regulations, because they provided for up to 30 not just for legally recognised marriages, but also for ‘significant event gatherings… to mark or celebrate a significant milestone in a person’s life, according to their religion or belief’. Humanists UK has enjoyed a good relationship working with relevant government officials on coronavirus regulations since March.

Humanists UK staff have been attempting to address the problems with government officials since the regulations were first made public on Thursday. But as of today, when the new law comes into force, no progress has been made in fixing them.

Humanists UK Chief Executive Andrew Copson commented: ‘This outrageous and unexpected situation is open-and-shut discrimination that the Government should urgently put right. There is certainly no rationale for allowing religious weddings for fifteen people whilst saying that humanist weddings “must be limited to six”. Everyone should be treated equally.

‘Since March we’ve worked closely with the Government to ensure that humanist ceremonies have been treated equally to religious ceremonies, and until now that work has been successful. But this latest bewildering change in law was introduced suddenly without consultation.

‘We do not at present face this problem in Wales, where the law treats religious people and humanists equally, and we do not face it in Scotland and Northern Ireland, where humanist weddings are legally recognised. We should not face it in England either.’

Jack Ford and Catherine Hard are due to have their humanist wedding in Surrey on 3 October. Today they said: ‘We want a humanist wedding because it reflects who we are as a couple, including our own beliefs and values, in a way that no other ceremony can. We are hugely disappointed by this move by the Government, which discriminates against us as humanists, and hope that urgent steps can be taken to resolve the situation before our special day.’

In July, six couples took a legal case to the High Court over legal recognition of humanist marriages in England and Wales. In that case, the judge ruled that the failure to provide legally recognised humanist marriages means that ‘the present law gives rise to… discrimination’, but instead deferred to the ongoing Law Commission review as meaning the Government should have more time to fix the matter. The couples in this case are currently exploring a limited appeal to that conclusion. That review follows on from a number of previous Government reviews into the matter spanning back to the 2013 Marriage Act. On its current schedule, if it is to result in any change in the law at all, it might only be expected to do so by 2023.

Mr Copson continued: ‘Today’s discrimination is just another reason why the UK Government should have brought about legal recognition of humanist marriages in England and Wales long ago. The Government has been reviewing legal recognition for some seven years now, and on its current schedule it will take at least another three. If it had instead extended recognition by now, as we have repeatedly asked for, then humanist couples would not now be facing today’s additional discrimination. In addition to solving this new problem, the Government should also provide interim reform for the legal recognition of humanist weddings more generally, to make sure this situation never occurs again.’

Notes:

For further comment or information, please contact Humanists UK Director of Public Affairs and Policy Richy Thompson at press@humanists.uk or phone 020 7324 3072 or 07534 248 596.

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.

In the July humanist marriage legal case, the judge ruled that the failure to provide legally recognised humanist marriages 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. However, she said, given that the Government is currently giving the matter consideration in the form of a review into marriage law by the Law Commission, the Government’s refusal to act immediately can be justified ‘at this time’ and concluded, ‘Although I may deprecate the delay that has occurred since 2015, I cannot ignore the fact that there is currently an on-going review of the law of marriage in this country.’ As a consequence, she declined to make a formal declaration that the Government is acting unlawfully at this time. The couples in this case are currently exploring a limited appeal of just the last part of that judgment.

Read precisely what has changed in the coronavirus regulations to cause this problem: https://humanism.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2020-09-24-RT-Explainer-of-how-coronavirus-regs-have-changed-to-limit-humanist-weddings-to-six.pdf

Read more about the legal case: https://humanism.org.uk/2020/07/31/humanist-marriage-case-outcome/

Read more about our work on humanist marriages: https://humanism.org.uk/campaigns/human-rights-and-equality/marriage-laws/

Humanists UK is the national charity working on behalf of non-religious people. Powered by over 85,000 members and supporters, we advance free thinking and promote humanism to create a tolerant society where rational thinking and kindness prevail. We provide ceremonies, pastoral care, education, and support services benefitting over a million people every year and our campaigns advance humanist thinking on ethical issues, human rights, and equal treatment for all.

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