Number 10 to all: No humanist weddings for you

Another poke in the eye for those wicked people who can’t manage to bend the knee to a god.

Thousands of couples planning non-religious humanist weddings could have their hopes dashed after a row between the Tories and Liberal Democrats saw Number 10 veto proposals to give such marriages legal status.

The Lib Dems want people who are agnostic, atheist or simply do not want a religious ceremony to be able to have a secular wedding, outside of a register office. Couples could tailor their own ceremonies, and select venues that are not licensed for civil weddings.

Aaaaaaaand…who could possibly object to that? What is there to object to? People can secular-marry in a register office, so why forbid them to secular-marry outside a register office? What possible purpose could that serve other than protecting some absurd religious monopoly?

The British Humanist Association (BHA) reacted furiously to the news, saying it was “shameful” that non-religious couples could not marry in ceremonies with the same legal status as believers.

Under current English law, weddings can take place in any registered religious building including churches, mosques and even premises belonging to the Scientologists, Spiritualists and the Aetherius Society –  whose members believe in aliens and that the Earth is a goddess.

They belieeeeve something; that’s what counts. It doesn’t matter what, as long as there’s no reason to think it’s true. People who fail to do that are eccentric and must be punished.

A historical exemption allows Jewish and Quaker ceremonies to be conducted anywhere – a legal provision that could be extended to allow humanist weddings. A government consultation, launched after the legalisation of gay marriage, found considerable public backing for the reform.

In Scotland, where humanist weddings have been legal since 2005, there has been an increase in the number of people getting married, against a general decline in the UK as a whole. Humanist weddings now account for 10 per cent of all Scottish marriages, making it the third most popular form of marriage in Scotland.

I guess humanists in England and Wales will just have to move north.

Andrew Copson, the chief executive of the BHA, described Number 10’s intervention as “astonishing”, saying it would be a “huge shock” for thousands of couples.

He said: “It is shameful that Number 10 would block the wish of thousands of couples to start their married life in a way that is personal and meaningful to them. Giving legal recognition to humanist marriages is a simple measure which adversely affects no one, has huge popular and political support, and would increase the number of people getting married each year.

“Under this government, Scientologists have been added to the list of religions that can perform legal marriages… To describe the legal recognition of humanist marriages as a “fringe” issue insults the many non-religious couples – much larger in number than these many small religious groups – whose planned marriages next year will not be able to go ahead if Number 10 blocks this change.”

It’s hard to disagree with him.

The BHA has waged a long campaign for humanist marriages to be made legal. A hard-won amendment during the passage of the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act 2013 compelled the Government to hold a consultation on the issue and awarded them order-making powers to introduce it.

And Cameron just wadded it all up and threw it in the bin. Nasty.


  1. RJW says


    I”m just amazed that’s the situation in the contemporary UK, I was married in a civil ceremony, in Australia, in a friend’s garden, 33 years ago, by a civil marriage celebrant. The French have a very secular system, only civil marriages are legal.

  2. mildlymagnificent says

    RJW. Me too. But 36 years ago. Our marriage celebrant was a friend. He was also the president of the local Atheist Society at the time.

    Our daughter was married in a beautiful waterside ceremony last year – a year ago this weekend. By a woman who makes a real business of marrying people. Far too many sickly sweet, almost maudlin, pictures, statues and the like at her house when you go there for rehearsal. But no religious claptrap, no non-religious claptrap from her. Just some laying down the law and spelling out the consequences (like her refusing to perform the ceremony if the attendants allow either the bride or the groom to turn up intoxicated, because they’d be legally incapacitated).

  3. Bernard Bumner says

    Again, reporting on English law continues to confuse here – it is possible to have a civil ceremony in a venue other than a register office, such as pubs, hotels, zoos, parks, etc. I was married in a 11th century castle. It is just that the venue has to be approved (basically, licensed).

    The issue must be about who officiates – a civil ceremony is conducted by a registrar who is an agent of the state. Ceremonies conducted by humanist celebrants don’t have legal force. I think that is the problem.

  4. RJW says

    @5 Bernard Bumner,

    Yes, the issue is about who officiates, we understand, and the problem is the definition of ‘humanist’, does it mean ‘secular’? If so, what the BHA is advocating is the creation of civil celebrants, such as already exist in Australia and the U.S.
    What the report implies is that there are no civil marriage celebrants in the UK, in contrast to the U.S. and Australia, ie independent practitioners licensed by the state who can perform wedding ceremonies, not employees of the state.

  5. Athywren; Kitty Wrangler says

    Downing Street is now blocking the idea because Lynton Crosby, David Cameron’s election strategist, sees it as a “fringe” issue that could muddy the Government’s key messages ahead of May’s general election.

    Wait, what? Muddy key messages? They’re going to stand in the way of people getting married because it might muddy key messages? They think telling people that they can’t get married in the way they want is going to win them votes? Isn’t most of the population of the UK secular? It kinda seems like this is a really good way to lose votes. Especially when you consider that, speaking only for myself, I was completely unaware that humanist weddings didn’t have the same legal standing as religious ones. Now I’m aware that they don’t, and I’m aware that the Tories are opposed to fixing that blatantly obvious mistake.

  6. Dunc says


    What the report implies is that there are no civil marriage celebrants in the UK

    Just England & Wales. As the article notes, we already have humanist celebrants here in Scotland, and they’re doing very well. (I realise that the distinctions between E&W, UK, etc are confusing. Even people who live here are constantly confused as to what applies to the UK as a whole and what doesn’t.)


    I guess humanists in England and Wales will just have to move north.

    No need to move! Scottish marriages are recognised by the rest of the UK, so you just need to come to visit, get married, and then go home again. This is why Gretna Green (the Scottish town closest to the border) has such a thriving marriage business – back in the days when Scotland had a lower age of consent, couples would elope to Gretna to get married without their parent’s permission. Nowadays it’s mostly just a bit of romantic fluff, but many people still get married there (traditionally, at the blacksmith’s anvil.)

  7. Bernard Bumner says

    @6, RJW,

    I must admit that, even having looked at the government consultation document, I’m struggling to precisely identify the issues.

    Registrars can be independently employed, but may also be employed by local government, and they can also be affiliated with the BHA as celebrants.

    The issue seems to be that Humanists would like to use celebrants who aren’t Registrars and venues which aren’t licensed. This is a historical anomaly of the law concerning Jewish and Quaker weddings, rather than being a religious privilege per se. The law is, again, something of a piecemeal concoction on this.

  8. says

    Never mind my comment on the next post. For some reason, the comments on this post appear full-width, waaaaaay down at the scrolly bottom.

    And now that I find them, I find that apparently the issue is murkier than it seemed in the OP. English law is weird.

  9. Matt Penfold says

    I think Cameron was scarred by the reaction of his MPs and party activists to his support for same-sex marriage. Most Tory MPs voted against same-sex marriage, and most party activists were against it as well. Cameron is to the left of most of his party on social issues, especially ones relating to LGBT issues.

  10. RJW says

    @8 Dunc, @9 Bernard Bumner,

    Thanks for the clarification. I’d assumed that the UK has a unitary system, actually it appears to have some quasi-federal characteristics. Explaining the Australian federal system to British visitors is not so easy either.

  11. Maureen Brian says

    Needless to say, the British Humanist Association is furious. Part of the problem is that Registry Office weddings are too restrictive for many people in what you can say, what can be included, how long you get for the ceremony – can feel like an assembly-line job.

    Cameron and co had promised a consultation as to when and how rather than whether it should be done and reneged on this ‘cos he’s a pillock. No other explanation is available because this is hardly a fringe issue – at the 2011 census 14.1 million people, a quarter of the population, ticked the No Religion box.

    That’s an awful lot of votes, Dave!

  12. Matt Penfold says

    Quasi-federal is a good way to put it. And the devolved powers will increase. Both Scotland and Wales are getting more powers, and Northern Ireland will should the politicians there ever agree what powers they want.

  13. says

    What is the difference between being married by a humanist (Humanist?) celebrant and being married by a “government employee”?

    I’m somewhat in the same boat as Bernard in terms of understanding the issue here. I’m not religious, so I don’t feel the need to have clergy officiating my wedding. (If I did, the ULC and I imagine the UUs would be happy to accommodate me, but I understand why that may not be considered sufficient.)

    As I’ve said, maybe the problem is I’ve never had the experience of suddenly, or even not so suddenly, being the only non-Christian in the room, so the trappings of religion, even repurposed for secular usages, aren’t important to me.

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