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Humanist Marriages

Volume 821: debated on Monday 25 April 2022


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government, further to the Written Statement by the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice on 15 March (HCWS682) and the Written Answer on 24 March (142529), why they have legislated to permit religious and civil marriage ceremonies to take place outdoors, but not similarly legislated for humanist marriages.

My Lords, legislating to allow outdoor civil weddings on existing approved premises was a long-standing commitment, accelerated to respond to the highly exceptional circumstances created by the Covid-19 pandemic. Following public consultation, this was made permanent in April. Humanists seek fundamental changes to marriage law, which requires more detailed consideration. The Law Commission is reviewing the matter and is due to report in July. The Government are awaiting the results of that consultation before deciding how to proceed.

My Lords, it is very important to humanists that they marry in a place that is meaningful to them. Not only can Quakers, Jews, Church of England and Church of Wales couples have their own religious celebrant, they can marry wherever they want. In 2020 the High Court ruled that when the Law Commission has reported, the Government must carry out the High Court ruling to legally recognise humanist marriage. Can the Minister confirm that when the Government implement this ruling, humanists will join the groups able to marry in a location of their choice?

My Lords, at present in England and Wales, other groups—faith groups or secular people—cannot marry where they want: it is a matter of the venue, as opposed to the celebrant, and that, at present, restricts choice in that area. To establish where we go from here, we will, as I say, await the report of the Law Commission.

My Lords, the judge in the High Court also ruled that

“the present law gives rise to … discrimination.”

For how much longer are the Government prepared to allow this apparent breach of the law without any guarantee that it will be resolved?

My Lords, the High Court in its decision found that the Government were entitled to proceed by way of clarifying the law as it relates to all bodies, religious, secular or otherwise; albeit that there was a measure of discrimination against humanists, the Government’s course was appropriate.

My Lords, obviously we anticipate the advice of the Law Commission, but ultimately this is going to be a political decision made by the Government. Given the importance of humanism, in terms of both western civilisation and the British character, it would make enormous sense to end this rather silly discrimination and give humanists the right to get married in a ceremony and location of their choice.

My Lords, the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act 2013 made provision for the Government to introduce legal recognition of humanist marriages by statutory instrument—as Quakers and Jews already have, in fact, despite the Minister’s earlier answer. Later this year, I understand, the Government are likely to give legal recognition to outdoor religious marriages by changing primary legislation, a vastly more complex process. Will the Minister please meet me to discuss how this very simple objective can be achieved for humanist marriages without further delay, there already being nine years since the primary legislation was passed?

My Lords, I am perfectly happy to arrange that someone from the relevant department should meet the noble Baroness—as, indeed, my colleague in the other place, Tom Pursglove MP, the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice, has met representatives from Humanists UK, and Crispin Blunt MP. That took place on 24 March.

My Lords, the Liberal Democrats clearly support this change; the Labour Party supports this change; the Government in Wales support this change; the Government in Scotland support this change; and, as we have heard from the noble Lord, Lord Pickles, it is ultimately going to be a political decision, so why are the Government waiting for the Law Commission’s report?

Because, my Lords, the question of marriage is a complex one and the Government do not wish to act prematurely where to do so may be to the prejudice of one group at the expense of others.

My Lords, will the Government give an estimate of the timescale for reform after the Law Commission has reported favourably?

My Lords, what is it about the humanists that obstructs the Government from doing them justice? Scotland allows it; Northern Ireland allows it; the Channel Islands allow it. What is it about the humanists that means they are discriminated against in England and Wales? It is because they are not Christians?

My Lords, precisely not. The situation is that in Scotland the rules of marriage are, as I said in an answer to another question, based on the identity of the celebrant. In England and Wales, they are based on the venue where the wedding ceremony is to take place. That is a complex matter that will take time to unpick; it is not a matter of prejudice against one group—and specifically not a matter of their not being Christians.

My Lords, nothing the Minister has said so far explains why humanists should be denied the right to a legal marriage while other religious groups have that right. Please could he explain to the House why that is the case?

My Lords, humanists advance a position as a belief system, as opposed to the simple negation of religious faith. We are advised that establishing a further category of wedding based on a belief system would be a profound change to the laws that bear on weddings. As a result, we are obliged to wait until the Law Commission has reported.

My Lords, I refer to my registered interests and ask the Minister a simple question: does he believe that the lack of legally recognised humanist marriages is unfair and discriminatory? If he does not agree that it is unfair and discriminatory, why not?

My Lords, if the question is directed to the department that I represent from the Dispatch Box today, there is no question of consideration of a belief that any such discrimination is unfair. If it is directed to me, I decline to answer.

On the former point, as I said in answer to previous questions, there is an outstanding Law Commission report. There is a High Court decision which considered that the Government were correct and acting appropriately in awaiting the position from which a more fundamental reform could be properly considered.

My Lords, I feel for the Minister: he is struggling and I think he would just like to be able to say yes. The Minister is talking about a profound change. It is not a profound change for those of us with different beliefs who take marriage very seriously and want to be able to have our humanist views expressed. This is not profound; this is a human right. How about—just as with Covid, when outdoor marriages were allowed on an interim basis—we do this on an interim basis and then we can sort out the details after the Law Commission reports?

My Lords, the Government consulted in 2014 on making provision for non-religious belief marriages, including a choice of location, using an order-making power. The consultation concluded that the matter raised a number of complex issues, including that by allowing humanists to solemnise marriages in unrestricted locations, the Government would create a provision for humanists that would not be available to all groups. Therefore, it was necessary to consider carefully the legal and technical requirements of marriage ceremonies before or at the same time as making a decision on whether to take forward the specific proposal to permit non-religious belief marriages. The loosening of restrictions on marriages taking place outdoors applied to venues within the existing provisions. Applying this to a humanist belief system could not be done within the existing framework; it would require innovation, which cannot be made.

My Lords, I speak as a Christian, but my noble and learned friend seems to be making a proverbial mountain out of a molehill here. Surely, if two people wish to commit themselves for life to each other and do not have religious beliefs, they ought to have the opportunity to do so in a solemn and seemly way.

My Lords, they do. My noble friend refers to the conduct of marriage in a solemn and seemly way. That is, of course, available outdoors, whether in a religious or civil setting. What is called for by reforming the law towards humanist weddings is a profound difference from that. Civil or religious marriages conducted indoors or outdoors can be as seemly as my noble friend wishes.