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Humanist Marriages

Volume 825: debated on Tuesday 29 November 2022


Tabled by

To ask His Majesty’s Government when they intend to give legal recognition to humanist marriages.

My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question standing in the name of my noble friend Lady Bakewell on the Order Paper.

My Lords, the Law Commission recently published its report on reforming wedding law in England and Wales. We must consider the 57 recommendations in full. It is important that we balance the needs and interests of all groups, religious and non-religious, and very carefully consider the implications of changing the law. I hope to be able to publish our initial response in the first part of next year.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for his reply but I must say that I am a little disappointed by it. The Law Commission, to which he referred, took no position on this question. It did not make a recommendation one way or the other. That is because this is a political decision. What is preventing the Government from going ahead and laying an order under the 2013 Act, getting it done now, and stopping once and for all the discrimination against humanists in this area?

My Lords, in a nutshell, the Government’s position is that to lay an order under the 2013 Act solely in favour of humanists would discriminate against other groups—Muslims, Sikhs, Hindus and so forth—in permitting them to have a particular form of marriage not available to other groups. The Government’s position is that we must go forward together and solve the whole problem. I will elaborate in a moment on what the problem is.

My Lords, we need to get a move on here. As one who believes very fervently in Christian marriage but even more in the institution of marriage, I ask: how can it be sensible to allow a wedding to take place in a registry office but not to allow humanists, who have their own ethics, to have a proper marriage ceremony? We need to get a move on. We had an almost identical Answer last time. Let us have a better one next time.

The Law Commission, in a very detailed and well-argued report, took the view that we should proceed as a country to solve the whole problem across all faiths at the same time and not favour a particular group. That is the Government’s position, and we will publish our position shortly.

My Lords, it will be 10 years next year since I tabled an amendment to the 2013 Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Bill about humanist marriages. In response to it, the Government tabled their own amendment enabling Ministers to make this tiny change—we are talking about two words—adding “and humanists” to Quakers and Jews. It seems highly unlikely that any legislation will pass following the Law Commission’s report before the next election. Therefore, will the Minister meet me to discuss how, 10 years on, this tiny adjustment can be made to the law through a ministerial order to end this discrimination once and for all?

My Lords, I am happy to meet the noble Baroness, but I doubt whether I shall be able to give her the assurance that she asks for. This is a quite difficult problem. We have to solve it across the board without discrimination either in favour of or against any faith group or non-faith group. We have to deal with the civil preliminaries for marriage, who is to be authorised, what is the regime for authorisation and, in particular, the problems raised by the All-Party Parliamentary Humanist Group itself in relation to the Law Commission’s report.

My Lords, why is it that Scotland and Wales have managed to have humanist weddings in their law? If I sound frustrated it is because I was part of the move in which, with enormous cross-party support, this House agreed an amendment to the equal marriage Bill which would allow humanist weddings. That has not been implemented by successive Conservative Governments. There must be a reason why that is the case, because it is not complicated or discriminatory. It is actually very straightforward. If and when my son wants to get married and wants a humanist wedding, he has to go to Scotland or Wales. That seems very unfair indeed.

My Lords, the Law Commission recommended reform. That has already taken place in other jurisdictions. We are working on exactly how the reform should take place in this country as fast as we can.

My Lords, those of us on this Bench in principle have no problem at all with humanist weddings. Does the Minister agree that the best way forward is the one that has been alluded to already, which is that it could be achieved most easily by following the historical precedent established with Jewish and Quaker weddings rather than adopting the overtly complex recommendations of the Law Commission’s report?

The Government have to consider in detail the Law Commission report, its undoubted strengths and the various points that have been made about it, not least by humanists. We will publish our position as soon as we can in the new year.

My Lords, is the problem that the humanists are not religious? Every other religion has been treated kindly and LGBTQ marriages can take place. Just the humanists in England are discriminated against. Is the Church of England so upset about humanists that it will not let humanists get married?

My Lords, as far as I know, this problem is not a matter for the Church of England. The Government’s view is that as a country we should proceed across the board to solve and update our law of marriage all at the same time.

My Lords, in Scotland, where humanist marriage is legal, as has been mentioned, there are more humanist marriages than Christian ones and marriage is more popular than ever. David Cameron supported gay marriage because he believed that marriage is a good thing and that everyone should be able to marry. Do this Government believe that marriage is a good thing? If so, why will they not allow humanists to legally marry?

This Government strongly support the institution of marriage. I am probably boring your Lordships by repeating myself: the Government think the whole problem should be solved across the board at the same time, not just with one group—the humanists.

My Lords, I declare an interest as a Methodist minister nearing 50 years since I was ordained and someone who enjoys the fellowship of humanist celebrants in funeral services in crematoria across the city. I declare to the Minister my total bewilderment at the nature of this discussion. It would enrich us all if people, according to conscience and practice, could marry in the way asked for in this Question. Can he understand the predicament of those of us of religious persuasion—the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans and the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, have also spoken from faith positions—in that it would be an addition to the richness and value of the ceremonies we produce? Can the Government explain why they cannot understand this?

With respect, I very much hope that the Government understand what the problem is. As the Government see it, we should have a regime for marriage in this country in which the civil preliminaries are common to all marriages, the persons who conduct marriages are authorised under one regime, we define what belief systems we will accept as people capable of authorising marriages, and we exclude extremists, cults and so forth. These are not straightforward questions. It is a very simple and, if I may say so, not complete answer to say that it is easy to do it for the humanists. We want to make sure that, for example, a marriage of a Muslim at home—which might not be a lawful marriage at the moment—is now taken forward and that we create a situation in which that becomes a lawful marriage and we have proper officiants, rules and regulations that regulate it all. That is the Government’s position.

My Lords, I supported the amendment from the noble Baroness, Lady Meacher, to the same-sex marriage Bill of 2013. The Minister probably feels rather beaten up by Members from all sides of your Lordships’ House, but we remember what Ministers said then. The provision that was arranged was deliberately simple to enable this to happen. I am sure the House would welcome other faiths being drawn into it, but this is long overdue. Please can he go away and look back at the history of the passage of that Act?

I will of course go back and look at the history. I am equipped with elderly but serviceable shin-pads and am quite used to having my shins thoroughly kicked when necessary, but in this case the Government feel that the country as a whole must go forward together and not favour a particular group.