Reform wedding laws

Reform wedding laws

Page 4 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Wedding law in England and Wales is badly out of date.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 2019 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

Wedding reform: “High level of support” across faiths & beliefs

Wedding reform: “High level of support” across faiths & beliefs

Posted: Tue, 14 Dec 2021 10:21

Proposed reforms to wedding laws have a "high level of support" from people of different religions and beliefs, according to a new study.

The results of the study published in a briefing paper this month found participants regarded wedding laws in England and Wales as "outdated" and "in need of reform" to reflect changes in society, including "religious and cultural diversity".

The study demonstrates broad support for reforms proposed by the Law Commission to wedding laws in England and Wales. The proposals were also backed by the National Secular Society in its response to a consultation by the commission in January.

The paper, whose authors include specialist advisor to the commission's weddings project Professor Rebecca Probert, investigated why wedding ceremonies are conducted outside the legal framework.

The study examined the views of 167 individuals from a variety of religious and non-religious backgrounds who had either participated in, or been involved conducting, different kinds of non-legally binding wedding ceremonies.

In 2014, a study of 50 Muslim women in the West Midlands found that while 46 were in an Islamic 'nikah' marriage, only 5 were in a legally recognised civil marriage. Over half were unaware that they lacked the full legal rights and protections of a legally recognised marriage.

Problems in wedding law

Key issues raised by participants included the perceived lack of recognition of non-Christian ceremonies, the non-recognition of ceremonies conducted by humanists and independent celebrants, and the limited options for interfaith weddings.

These issues result partly from the law in England and Wales which specifies the vast majority of legally recognised weddings can only take place in registered place of worship or approved premises. Only weddings held according to Jewish or Quaker traditions may take place in any setting.

Participants considered these rules "unnecessarily restrictive", especially those who have limited access to a registered place of worship or who wanted to marry outdoors.

The Law Commission proposals, supported by the NSS, would replace the restrictive building-based system with an officiant-based one for the legal recognition of marriage.

An officiant-based system would entail a more inclusive approach to authorising which religious groups can officiate legally recognised weddings, and could include "non-religious belief groups" including humanists. It could also include independent celebrants and would make it easier for couples to hold interfaith weddings.

The proposals found "widespread support" among participants.

Additionally, having weddings on approved premises contributed to the cost of getting married, participants said. Many expressed that having a wider choice of venues by removing restrictions would reduce costs.

The Law Commission has also proposed to lift restrictions on religious content at civil ceremonies. This would mean marrying couples could choose to have a hymn sung or prayer read at their ceremony.

Only one participant expressed concerns that permitted this would "draw away" from the role of religious groups in weddings. Other participants supported the proposals, which are also backed by the NSS.

Many participants also considered the legal processes for getting married to be "complex and uncertain". The Law Commission's proposals aim to simplify many of these aspects, including introducing standardised civil preliminaries.

NSS comment

NSS head of policy and research Megan Manson said: "This study underscores the urgent need for reform of wedding laws in England and Wales to make them simpler, fairer and fitting for the 21st century.

"Participants' views reveal these laws are archaic and cannot accommodate the increasingly irreligious and religiously-diverse society we have today.

"The Law Commission's proposals would make it easier and cheaper for everyone, whatever their religion or belief, to have the wedding that best suits them. The government should embrace these plans to ensure no-one faces unnecessary barriers to marriage."



Only one in five marriages in England & Wales was religious in 2018

Posted: Thu, 12 Aug 2021 13:53

Religious weddings hit a record low in England and Wales in 2018 as just one in five marriages were conducted as religious ceremonies, new figures have shown.

Data from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) has shown that just over 20% of marriages – 21.1% of opposite sex marriages and 0.9% of same-sex marriages – were religious that year.

The proportion represents a further decline from 2017, when 22% of all marriages were religious – itself a historic low. Religious ceremonies made up almost 85% of all marriages in 1900 and more than 50% in 1980.

The National Secular Society has said the figures show the need for legal reform.

Current law

Currently, couples in England and Wales must get married in a registered building, with the exception of Jewish and Quaker weddings.

Recent proposals for the reform of wedding law from the Law Commission would introduce an officiant-based system which would give couples more freedom over where they choose to marry.

The NSS, which argues for reform of the marriage laws to separate its religious and civic aspects, has expressed support for this proposal.

Inequality between religious and civil venues

Recent NSS research has found that more than 39,000 places of worship are registered to conduct marriages, as opposed to just over 7,500 civil premises.

The NSS has also found that it is harder and more expensive for civil premises to register than religious ones, and that just 0.7% of religious premises are registered to hold same-sex weddings.

NSS comment

NSS head of policy and research Megan Manson said the data showed that "the law has failed to keep pace with social change".

"Currently marriage law in England and Wales is too complex, creating unjustifiable inequalities and impositions on couples' freedom to marry in ways that are meaningful to them.

"These figures should prompt further consideration of the proposals recently put forward by the Law Commission, which would ensure greater equality and fairness in marriage and make marriage law more suitable for the 21st century."


  • The Law Commission reviews the law in England and Wales and recommends reform where it judges it is needed.
  • There were 234,795 marriages in 2018, with marriage rates for opposite-sex couples the lowest on record.
  • Same-sex marriages accounted for around one in 35 marriages.
  • The ONS's figures don't cover the period since early 2020, when weddings have been severely affected by the Covid pandemic.

Read more: Just how equal is marriage now?, by Megan Manson for the NSS (published in 2018).

Image by PIRO4D from Pixabay.

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