On Thursday, the Lords held a short debate, initiated by Lord Harrison (Lab), on the absence of provision for humanist wedding ceremonies in England and Wales. Lord Harrison pointed out that some 1,900 of the respondents to the Government’s last consultation had been in favour of humanist ceremonies and that, in Scotland, there were now more humanist weddings than religious ones. Noting that the Government had allowed Humanists UK to represent humanists in the Armed Forces at the recent Armistice Day ceremony at the Cenotaph, he suggested that it was time to change the law.
Replying for the Government, Baroness Vere of Norbiton conceded that “in Scotland, as the noble Lord mentioned, we have seen that humanist marriages are attractive to many couples”. She continued, however:
“It is therefore absolutely critical that we do not embark on piecemeal reform, which may lead to inconsistencies between groups—for example, between non-religious belief organisations and religious belief organisations. I look forward to seeing the Law Commission review in due course.”
Later, she said:
“My Lords, nobody is denying humanists marriage. Humanists and, indeed, any couple can make private, non-legal arrangements following a civil ceremony. What we want to do … is to make sure that the law is right and that we take into account all possible considerations from humanists and many other groups which also want to see a change in the law” [emphasis added].
That last quote misses the point entirely. It was precisely the issue of having a formal, legal humanist wedding rather than “a private, non-legal arrangement’ that led Laura Smyth and her fiancé Eunan O’Kane to apply – successfully – for judicial review of the relevant law in Northern Ireland: they wanted “an explicitly humanist marriage ceremony – not a civil ceremony with attenuated humanist ‘bits’”: see Smyth, Re Judicial Review  NIQB 55 .
As to whether the situation will change in England and Wales, however, we must wait for the Law Commission to conclude its review of wedding law.
“As to whether the situation will change in England and Wales, however, we must wait for the Law Commission to conclude its review of wedding law.” Not at all: the Government can (be persuaded to) change its mind and exercise its power under the 2013 Act – or litigation similar to that in Northern Ireland may force its hand. Waiting for the Law Commission would mean at least another five years’ delay after the five years that have already expired since Parliament made its views quite clear in 2013.
True: but I just don’t believe that – realistically – the Government will do anything in advance of the latest Law Commission consultation.
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