Reform wedding laws

Reform wedding laws

Page 13 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Wedding law in England and Wales is badly out of date.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

Thousands march for marriage equality in NI

Thousands march for marriage equality in NI

Posted: Mon, 4 Jun 2018 15:46

Thousands of people attended marches in Belfast and Londonderry to call for marriage equality for same-sex couples in Northern Ireland on Saturday.

Police said 5,000 people attended the Belfast march, which was led by the city's lord mayor Nuala McAllister and organised by the Love Equality campaign. Labour MP Conor McGinn, who spoke at the event, said 20,000 people had attended across the two venues.

The protesters demanded legislation from the UK parliament to ensure same-sex couples could get married in Northern Ireland.

McAllister said marriage equality was "just one step towards total equality for the LGBT community here".

"This will not harm anyone. This will not harm your marriage, nor anyone else's. This is about celebrating love between two people. There is nothing to be afraid of."

Last month McGinn, who was born in Northern Ireland, introduced a bill at Westminster to bring same-sex marriage to NI. The bill was prevented from getting to the next stage. The pressure for change comes amid an ongoing deadlock over power-sharing in Northern Ireland, which has not had an executive since January 2017.

Northern Ireland is the only part of the British Isles where same-sex marriage is now illegal. On Monday BBC News NI reported that dozens of same-sex couples from Northern Ireland had married elsewhere in the UK or Ireland. On returning to NI their marriages are only recognised as civil partnerships.

Last year the High Court ruled that same-sex marriages entered into in London did not need to be recognised in NI.

In 2015 the devolved Northern Ireland assembly voted for legalisation by a thin majority. But the DUP blocked the motion using a petition of concern, a measure introduced under the Belfast Agreement of 1998 which was designed to protect the rights of minority groups.

There is gathering evidence that the Northern Irish public backs the legalisation of same-sex marriage. In April a poll for Sky Data found 76% of people in NI were in favour, with just 18% against.

DUP leader Arlene Foster has made clear that religion is an important reason for her party's intransigence on the issue.

At Saturday's rally McAllister said she was "disappointed that we cannot legislate for marriage equality locally", citing "too many people in the assembly who abuse power with the petition of concern".

McGinn said "a huge majority in the House of Commons" wanted the legislation changed.

"Westminster has a duty to legislate for equal rights in Northern Ireland. These rights are enjoyed by people right across the UK and the rest of the island of Ireland. With no functioning assembly, Theresa May must act.

"We can't have inequality and discrimination for LGBT people here - we don't have it anywhere else."

In preparation for the march Patrick Corrigan of the Love Equality campaign said it was "nonsensical that the government is denying the people of Northern Ireland the same rights as everyone else in the UK".

"Human rights should not rely on postcodes. There can be no second-class citizens in the UK."

Stephen Evans, the National Secular Society's chief executive, commented: "Same-sex couples should enjoy the same marriage rights as opposite-sex ones across the UK. That principle mustn't be restricted because of the theocratic views of a rapidly shrinking minority of people in Northern Ireland.

"Those with the power to change the law in Northern Ireland should realise that the legalisation of same-sex marriage would harm nobody. Whether in London or Belfast, they should get on with making it a reality and putting an end the ongoing discrimination against LGBT people."

Image: © Love Equality NI, via Twitter

NSS: legal reform needed to tackle marriage provision inequalities

NSS: legal reform needed to tackle marriage provision inequalities

Posted: Fri, 1 Jun 2018 11:18

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, National Secular Society research has revealed.

We've found that over 80% of places where people can get married are religious. But far less than a third of weddings (26% involving opposite-sex couples and 0.7% involving same-sex couples) were religious in 2015.

Same-sex couples can only get married in 16% of registered marriage venues – almost all of which are civil venues. Even there they face heightened competition from opposite-sex couples who want a civil marriage, or whose application for a religious marriage is rejected.

In response to the findings we've written to the government to highlight the "deep inequalities" the current system causes and call for the institution of marriage to be "fully secularised".

Only 7,500 civil wedding venues are registered to hold marriages in England and Wales, as opposed to around 40,000 places of worship. Just 0.5% of the places of worship which can hold weddings are registered to conduct same-sex marriages. Civil wedding venues must allow both opposite-sex and same-sex marriages by law.

Our figures came from an analysis of government data on places of worship and civil venues registered for marriage, and lists on the Church of England and the Church in Wales websites.

We also found that registering a venue for religious marriage is easier and cheaper than registering a venue for a non-religious marriage. The former involves completing a two-sided form giving details of 20 householders who attend the place of worship and paying a one-off fee of £123. The latter involves agreeing to the terms and specifications of a 36-page manual and paying a large licence fee that must be renewed every three years.

Manchester City Council charges £900 for a civil wedding licence. Cost is likely to be part of the reason why only a quarter of couples on low incomes get married, compared to almost 90% of middle earners.

In his letter to the government NSS chief executive Stephen Evans called for legislative reform to separate the legal act of marriage from religion.

"In order for marriage to continue to fulfil its role as providing a stable institution for couples and their children, its legal aspects must be separated from religion so that it can be truly inclusive and accessible to all," he wrote.

We suggested that reform could mean allowing all couples to marry anywhere they wished, provided an approved registrar oversaw the legally-binding part of the ceremony. Under current laws a legally-binding wedding must take place in either a registered place of worship or an approved premises for civil weddings and civil partnerships. The only exceptions to this are for Jewish and Quaker weddings, which may take place anywhere.

We also said couples should have greater freedom over the content of civil wedding ceremonies. At present non-religious weddings may not contain any religious references at all – even in peripheral aspects such as readings and the music during the legal part of the ceremony.

Explaining the decision to write to the government, Mr Evans said: "It's unacceptable that arranging a same-sex or non-religious wedding brings extra difficulty and cost.

"The marriage laws in England and Wales are archaic, incoherent and unfair. Ensuring a more equitable arrangement which safeguards everyone's rights needs to be part of wide-ranging reform of marriage law which includes the separation of civil and religious marriage.

"Marriage should become a civil matter whereby all marriages are legally registered by a state-regulated registrar. Alongside the ceremony couples would be able to exchange any other vows they wished.

"Couples should be free to marry anywhere so long as that place is agreed with the registration authority and a civil registrar or authorised celebrant is present to conduct the legal aspect of the ceremony."

Over 1,000 religious denominations are currently represented in the government's list of places of worship registered for marriage. These include 'Who object to be designated by any distinctive religious appellation', which has registered its place of worship as 'Meeting room'.

Our findings come amid ongoing debate over reform to the marriage laws. The recommendations we made were similar to some of those made in a 2015 scoping report from the Law Commission, which made clear the need for comprehensive marriage reform.

Last year a Channel 4 documentary revealed that almost two-thirds of Muslim women married in Britain were not in legally recognised marriages, as they had not had civil ceremonies alongside their nikah religious ceremonies.

The number of same-sex marriages is rapidly rising. In 2015, a year after same-sex marriage legislation came in force, there were over 26,000 married gay couples in England and Wales. In 2016, this number more than doubled to over 60,000.

In 2017 figures showed that more than one million people were gay, lesbian or bisexual.

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