Reform wedding laws

Reform wedding laws

Page 14 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Wedding law in England and Wales is badly out of date.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

Same-sex marriages need not be recognised in NI, court rules

Posted: Fri, 18 Aug 2017 11:10

The High Court has ruled that same-sex marriages which are entered into in England do not need to be recognised in Northern Ireland.

A man who got married in London in 2014 had claimed the marriage should have legal force in Northern Ireland, where he and his spouse now live. The judge rejected his case that this was a breach of his rights under the European Convention on Human Rights.

Same-sex marriage has been held not to be a right under the Convention in a recent judgment, nor is it a right in any UN convention. Furthermore, under the Northern Ireland Act 1998 marriage falls under the competence of the NI Executive and Assembly.

Hence same-sex marriage by virtue of the provisions of the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act 2013 does not extend to Northern Ireland. That Act specifically provides that a same sex marriage is treated for the purposes of the law of Northern Ireland as a civil partnership.

The judge however recognised the "frustration" of those seeking recognition, particularly as a majority of Assembly members in Stormont have voted in favour of same-sex marriage but this has been vetoed under the power sharing agreement. He concluded: "The judgment which I have to reach is not based on social policy but on the law."

A second case about two same-sex couples with civil partnerships registered into in Northern Ireland (the first two couples ever to do so) who argued their inability to get married violated their entitlements to marriage and a family life was similarly dismissed. One of the women said she was "devastated", adding: "For us, this is a personal matter. We have families and our children are being treated differently because of today's result."

John O'Doherty, the director of The Rainbow Project, referred to the NI Assembly not functioning: "It is, therefore, the responsibility of Theresa May's government to make the necessary amendments to the marriage legislation to make it applicable in Northern Ireland."

Keith Porteous Wood, the executive director of the National Secular Society, commented: "While Mrs May is in favour of extending same-sex marriage to the province, she is unlikely in the extreme to do so, as this would undermine the confidence and supply agreement she reached with the anti same-sex marriage DUP and thereby deprive the government of votes it needs to remain in office."

DUP vows to resist calls to legalise abortion and same-sex marriage

Posted: Fri, 11 Aug 2017 13:59

DUP leader Arlene Foster has said her party will retain Northern Ireland's restrictions on abortion and same-sex marriage, despite growing pressure for reform.

This week Foster said her party believes that "marriage is between a man and a woman" and "it remains my position very firmly". She was speaking at an event organised by the Methodist Church in Ireland.

She also met Precious Life, which describes itself as "the largest pro-life group in Northern Ireland". Afterwards the organisation said she had assured them her party will do "everything in its power" to maintain Northern Ireland's limits on abortion.

Abortion has been illegal in Northern Ireland since the Victorian era. It has been decriminalised in the rest of the UK since the 1960s.

"Ms Foster was unequivocal in her pro-life conviction and assured us that the DUP will use their power to keep abortion, and the 1967 Abortion Act, out of pro-life Northern Ireland," a spokeswoman for Precious Life told The Times.

The group also said Foster had congratulated it on its youth campaign group, which has travelled around Northern Ireland this summer.

Her party is increasingly facing calls to allow women to have abortions. In June the UK government announced that Northern Irish women would be allowed access to NHS abortion services in England. Around a thousand women make the trip each year.

The number of legal abortions in the province was recently measured at just 15. In 2015 the Belfast High Court ruled that the law was in breach of international human rights standards as it did not permit terminations in cases of rape, incest or serious foetal abnormalities.

The DUP's position is a crucial factor in the passage of legislation. Last year an Ipsos-Mori poll found that 70% of the Northern Irish electorate was in favour of legalising same-sex marriage. And in 2015 the devolved Northern Ireland Assembly voted by a thin majority to legalise it. But the motion was blocked through the use of a "petition of concern", a measure introduced under the Good Friday Agreement of 1998. The petition was designed to protect the rights of minority groups.

Foster has made clear that religion is a crucial reason for her party's stance. Last year she said "the DUP is – and we make no apology for this – founded on very strong Christian values." She was responding to a question about the relevance of issues such as marriage and abortion to her party's identity.

And religious groups have resisted calls to liberalise the law. The Northern Ireland Evangelical Alliance is among those to oppose same-sex marriage. In 2015 a coalition of groups offered "strong support" to legislation which would have introduced a ten year prison sentence for carrying out an abortion.

That year the Catholic Council for Social Affairs was also recognised as an "interested party" in a case seeking to overturn a High Court ruling that Northern Ireland's restrictions on abortion in cases of rape, incest and fatal foetal abnormality breeched Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights.

The National Secular Society has consistently campaigned against Northern Ireland's restrictions on abortion and in favour of extending marriage to same-sex couples. In evidence submitted to the United Nations Human Rights Council for their 2017 review of the UK, the NSS called Northern Ireland's restrictions on abortion out of touch with international human rights norms, and called on the Council to renew their 2012 recommendations on the topic. While healthcare is a devolved issue, the NSS argued, human rights are not.

In 2016 the Human Rights Council's review of the Republic of Ireland – in which 15 countries issued recommendations on Ireland's abortion laws – led to increased pressure on the country to repeal their constitutional amendment banning abortion. A referendum is expected in spring 2018.

A spokesperson for the NSS said: "This time next year, access to abortion and same-sex marriage will be available across the British Isles. Unfortunately Northern Ireland is likely to remain the exception.

"Arlene Foster's remarks are disappointing. The DUP continues to commit to restricting the choices of women and LGBT+ people, defying the changing views of many of the people she leads. This is further evidence that religious groups have excessive influence on public policy in Northern Ireland."

Picture credit: © Northern Ireland Office

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