Reform wedding laws

Reform wedding laws

Page 12 of 28: Make marriage fairer for all people of all religions and beliefs.

Wedding law in England and Wales is badly out of date.

We campaign for marriage to be equally open to all, regardless of religion or belief.

Time for one wedding law for all.

In England and Wales, different laws apply depending on whether a wedding is Anglican, Jewish, Quaker, another religion or not religious at all (a civil wedding or partnership).

This is unfair, confusing and absurd.

Most religious weddings must be held in a registered place of worship, while civil weddings and partnerships must take place in approved premises. Jewish and Quaker weddings can take place anywhere.

This system leads to inequality. Members of religions which don't have fixed places of worship, or don't use their places of worship for weddings, are disadvantaged. And members of nonreligious communities such as Humanism have no way of getting legally married according to their philosophical beliefs.

The process for a place of worship to register itself for marriage is much cheaper than for approved premises for civil ceremonies. This in turn contributes to the cost of civil marriages and partnerships.

Over 80% of opposite-sex marriages in England and Wales in 2022 were civil marriages. But only 16% of recognised wedding venues in England and Wales can hold civil marriages. The remaining 84% are religious venues.

While approved premises for civil weddings and partnerships must by law hold ceremonies for same-sex couples, this is not the case for places of worship. In 2022, only 2% of places of worship were registered for same-sex weddings. This considerably reduces the options for same-sex couples. Whereas opposite-sex weddings are in slow decline, same-sex weddings are increasing.

UPDATE: The Law Commission has now made its final recommendations on reforming wedding law on England and Wales. Please write to your MP in support of the recommendations...

Unregistered religion-only 'marriages'

The complexity of marriage law may contribute to the rise in couples who have religious 'wedding' ceremonies that are not legally-binding.

A signification proportion of Muslim couples are in an Islamic 'nikah' union lacking the full legal rights and protections of a recognised marriage.

Unregistered marriages can undermine women's rights in particular. If a woman in a nikah is 'divorced' suddenly, or against her wishes, she can be left homeless and without any money or assets.

The situation is made worse by sharia councils or 'courts' which dispense religious rulings on Islamic marriage, child custody and divorce. These are not courts of law but there are concerns some Muslim women, especially those not born in the UK or unable to speak English, perceive them as having real legal authority.

Sharia councils leave children vulnerable and discriminate openly against women. To seek a religious divorce a woman must gain permission from these almost entirely male councils, and there are reports of women being denied this request even in cases where they have faced abuse.

Reforming wedding laws will not solve these problems completely. But making wedding laws simpler and fairer can encourage couples to gain the legal protections of a registered marriage.

Take action!

1. Write to your MP

Tell your MP to support the Law Commission's recommendations for wedding reform.

2. Share your story

Tell us why you support this campaign, and how you are personally affected by the issue. You can also let us know if you would like assistance with a particular issue.

3. Join the National Secular Society

Become a member of the National Secular Society today! Together, we can separate religion and state for greater freedom and fairness.

Latest updates

High Court rules Muslim ‘marriage’ void rather than non-marriage

High Court rules Muslim ‘marriage’ void rather than non-marriage

Posted: Tue, 7 Aug 2018 14:28

A woman who had a Muslim 'marriage' ceremony but not a civil one is entitled to a decree of nullity which rules her marriage void, the High Court has ruled.

Last week Mr Justice Williams declared that Nasreen Akhter and Mohammed Shabaz Khan had a void marriage rather than a non-marriage.

He ruled that the couple had "a marriage entered into in disregard of certain requirements as to the formation of marriage". Under the Matrimonial Causes Act of 1973 this entitled Akhter to a decree of nullity, which rules a marriage void.

The decision means the provisions of civil divorce law will apply and Akhter will be entitled to protection under English law.

The couple had an Islamic wedding ceremony (a nikah) in 1998 but did not have a civil ceremony. They lived together as a married couple for 18 years and had four children, living in London, Birmingham and Dubai. In 2016 the 'wife' went to court to ask for a divorce.

The court found that Khan had promised to hold a civil ceremony shortly after the nikah but it had never taken place. Khan had disputed this during the case, arguing that neither party had intended to create legal remedies and therefore the marriage should be ruled non-existent.

The judge said the case was "not about whether an Islamic marriage ceremony should be treated as creating a valid marriage in English law".

"In fact, the main issue as it has emerged is almost diametrically the opposite of that question; namely, whether a nikah marriage ceremony creates an invalid or void marriage in English law."

During the case the attorney general submitted detailed submissions to the court, largely in favour of Khan.

Hazel Wright, a family law specialist at the London law firm Hunters, said the ruling had "given heart to many who otherwise suffer discrimination".

She said it was vital for Akhter that the "English divorce court rule in her favour" to give her rights and allow her to make financial claims.

A Guardian editorial called the ruling "a subtle and audacious piece of reasoning on a really important issue".

"It offers an elegant way to unpick a knot that binds far too many women today without violating anyone's religious conscience."

But Mohammed Amin, the chair of the Conservative Muslim Forum, voiced concern and said he expected the decision to be overturned on appeal.

"I suspect that more Muslim women will foolishly enter into nikah-only relationships in reliance upon this decision. However, that will mean that they are relying for divorce protection in English law upon a fact-based determination which could go either way if their relationship breaks down.

"In this case, there were many strong factual findings in favour of W [Akhter]. Many other cases will not be as strong, and litigation is often an expensive lottery."

Earlier this year a government review of sharia 'courts' recommended giving Islamic marriage the same legal standing as Christian or Jewish marriage earlier this year. The National Secular Society opposes this proposal.

The review also recommended government regulation of sharia 'courts'. The NSS welcomed the government's decision to dismiss this suggestion.

In June the NSS revealed deep inequalities in the current marriage system in England and Wales and wrote to the government to call for "wide-ranging reform of marriage law" to separate marriage from religion.

The NSS's recommendations were similar to those made by the Law Commission in a scoping paper in 2015. In response to the Akhter decision Frank Cranmer, writing for Law & Religion UK, called the government's decision to reject the commission's recommendations "a serious mistake".

The government's plans for piecemeal marriage reform "could just mean the addition of yet another strand to the cat's cradle of overlapping provisions on marriage in England and Wales", he added.

NSS renews call for marriage reform after civil partnerships ruling

NSS renews call for marriage reform after civil partnerships ruling

Posted: Thu, 28 Jun 2018 17:12

The National Secular Society has renewed its call for reform of England and Wales's marriage laws after the Supreme Court ruled in favour of opposite-sex civil partnerships.

On Wednesday a heterosexual couple, Rebecca Steinfeld and Charles Keidan, won the right to have a civil partnership instead of a marriage.

The Supreme Court ruled unanimously that the Civil Partnership Act 2004, which applies only to same-sex couples, was incompatible with the European Convention on Human Rights.

The ruling increases the pressure on the government to reform the law around civil partnerships but does not oblige it to act. The NSS urged the government to take the opportunity to look at the issue of legal partnerships in full.

NSS chief executive Stephen Evans said: "This week's decision on civil partnerships should prompt a wide-ranging review of the marriage laws in England and Wales, which are archaic and far too complex.

"The legal institution of marriage should be regulated on a purely civil basis and marriages should be registered by state-regulated registrars.

"A genuinely secular marriage system would help to deal with the concerns which couples such as Rebecca Steinfeld and Charles Keidan have over marriage as an institution. It would also give couples greater freedom over both the contents of their weddings and where they take place."

Earlier this month the NSS revealed that it is significantly harder for those seeking same-sex or non-religious weddings to get married than those seeking religious ceremonies in England and Wales. In response the society wrote to the government calling for legislative reform to separate the legal act of marriage from religion.

Couples who enter civil partnerships are entitled to the same legal treatment in terms of inheritance, tax, pensions and next-of-kin arrangements as those who marry.

Steinfeld and Keidan have said they do not want a marriage because of its "legacy" of treating "women as property for centuries".

"We want to raise our children as equal partners and feel that a civil partnership – a modern, symmetrical institution – sets the best example for them."

A move to reform the law could mean the scrapping of civil partnerships – though this would mean defying the Church of England. Last month it was revealed that the C of E was lobbying ministers to keep civil partnerships to help it deal with its internal disputes over same-sex marriage.

Mr Evans said the government "must not let the C of E dictate its policy".

"The law on marriage and civil partnerships should be crafted to reflect the interests of couples who enter them and society as a whole. It's not the law's job to act as a sticking plaster covering the established church's internal embarrassments."

Meanwhile the NSS is continuing to call for marriage equality in Northern Ireland, where same-sex marriage is not legally recognised.

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