Humanist weddings and the Marriage (Approved Organisations) Bill

On 9 January, Baroness Meacher introduced the Marriage (Approved Organisations) Bill in the House of Lords. In short, the Bill, if enacted, would amend the Marriage Act 1949 by inserting a new section 47A as follows—

47A Marriages according to the usages of authorised belief organisations

(1)  An authorised belief organisation may solemnise marriages according to its usages provided that no religious service may be used at such marriages.

(2)  For the purposes of subsection (1), the British Humanist Association is an authorised belief organisation.

(3)  The Secretary of State may, by regulations made by statutory instrument, authorise further belief organisations for the purposes of subsection (1).

(4)  Upon authorisation, a belief organisation shall designate an officer of the organisation (“the principal officer”) to appoint persons for stated periods of time to act as registering officers on behalf of the organisation, and may impose such conditions as seem to him or her to be desirable relative to the conduct of marriages by the organisation and to the safe custody of marriage register books…“

The remainder of the inserted section goes on to make detailed provision about such matters as appointment of registering officers and certification.

Comment: Humanists UK points out that humanist wedding ceremonies have been recognised in Scotland since 2005: there were over 6,000 humanist weddings in 2018, amounting to about 20 per cent of the total. Humanist wedding ceremonies became legal in Northern Ireland after the Court of Appeal held in Smyth, Re Application for Judicial Review [2018] NICA 25 that the statutory prohibition on humanist weddings constituted discrimination contrary to Articles 9 and 14 ECHR and that Article 31 of the Marriage (Northern Ireland) Order 2003 provided a basis for avoiding discrimination by allowing the appointment of humanist celebrants.

Perhaps the provision in 47A(1) that “no religious service may be used at such marriages”, needs to be amplified to reflect the conditions in paragraph 11 of Schedule 2 to The Marriages and Civil Partnerships (Approved Premises) Regulations 2005, as follows:

“11.—(1) Any proceedings conducted on approved premises shall not be religious in nature.

(2) In particular, the proceedings shall not—

(a) include extracts from an authorised religious marriage service or from sacred religious texts;

(b) be led by a minister of religion or other religious leader;

(c) involve a religious ritual or series of rituals;

(d) include hymns or other religious chants; or,

(e) include any form of worship.

(3) But the proceedings may include readings, songs, or music that contain an incidental reference to a god or deity in an essentially non-religious context.”

Further, the various provisions relating to registration are based on the present, paper-based system; they will presumably need to be amended at some point to take account of the promised provisions on registration under the Civil Partnerships, Marriages and Deaths (Registration etc) Act 2019, which are expected to come into operation on 1 April 2020.

Finally, as regular readers will be aware, the Law Commission is about to launch a project on wedding law – which is still at the pre-consultation stage. Whether, in the circumstances, Baroness Meacher’s Bill will be allowed to make much progress is not clear: the Government may prefer to deal with the more general reform of wedding law in England and Wales as a package rather than piecemeal. But you never can tell.

FC & DP

Cite this article as: Frank Cranmer & David Pocklington, “Humanist weddings and the Marriage (Approved Organisations) Bill” in Law & Religion UK, 14 January 2020, https://www.lawandreligionuk.com/2020/01/14/humanist-weddings-and-the-marriage-approved-organisations-bill/.

2 thoughts on “Humanist weddings and the Marriage (Approved Organisations) Bill

  1. Where does the 47A(1) leave mixed humanist/religious couples who hoped to have a wedding acknowledging both traditions? Or people who consider themselves Humanistic Jews or Christian Humanists, etc.? For example, if a Humanist/Christian couple wants to include a prayer for the Christian half of the family in the ceremony, is the implication that the celebrant would have to leave the room?

    The finest academics in the field of religious studies cannot easily delineate between the sacred and profane or the religious and the quotidian. I think it is unwise for the Government to try to draw such lines.

  2. Good point. But I suspect that that might be a bridge too far and that, for the moment, humanists will be happy enough if they finally get permission to conduct humanist ceremonies in England & Wales.

    I very much hope that the Law Commission project will iron out the inconsistencies.

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