The Government has today published its response on Marriages by non-religious belief organisations. The nub of the response is as follows:
- The majority of respondents to the consultation are in favour of legally valid marriage ceremonies for those with non-religious beliefs, and allowing these marriages to take place in unrestricted locations, including outdoors .
- But there are a number of complex issues raised which have implications for marriage solemnization more broadly  because, unlike in Scotland (where individual celebrants are registered to solemnize marriages), in England and Wales the law is based on registration of buildings .
- Allowing non-religious belief marriages could be considered to advance equality of opportunity between couples with a religious belief who those holding a non-religious belief .
- But the Government cannot think of an option that would not create a further difference in treatment within marriage law and provide for complete equality of treatment between those with religious beliefs, those with humanist or other non-religious belief, and couples more generally .
- Restricting ceremonies to buildings registered by belief organisations would provide parity with the majority of religious groups; but humanists do not have buildings of their own to register .
- Allowing belief marriages in unrestricted locations might be seen as unfair by couples who are neither religious nor humanist but who also may want a greater choice of marriage venues .
- In making any changes, the Government would have to guard rigorously against increasing the risk of forced and sham marriages .
“It is the Government’s view … that in order to make a decision on whether to take forward the specific proposal to permit legally valid marriage ceremonies for those with non-religious beliefs, it is necessary to carefully consider the legal and technical requirements concerning marriage ceremonies and registration and the range of relevant equality issues. To this end the Government will ask the Law Commission if it will begin as soon as possible a broader review of the law concerning marriage ceremonies” .
So in brief, the answer is “Er, not just yet”.
If nothing else, the response points up the inadequacies of the current law in England and Wales. I would argue (and have done so on more than one occasion) that licensing celebrants is a much more sensible model than licensing buildings because it makes it much easier for marriage law to keep up with the changing nature of society in general. Perhaps the Law Commission will use the “broader review” to look at the need for fundamental change.
Wouldn’t all these difficulties be entirely removed by deciding that all marriages require legal registration in the appropriate registry office, and leave the couple to choose a form of ceremony and a ceremony provider that met their beliefs or non-beliefs in a separate venue?
Yes: but I don’t think that the Law Commission is likely to recommend that.
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