Reform wedding laws

Reform wedding laws

Page 5 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Wedding law in England and Wales is badly out of date.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

Nahamu forced marriage RSE

Improve RSE in faith schools to curb forced marriage, campaigners say

Posted: Fri, 19 Feb 2021 11:54

Secondary school pupils should be taught that they can choose "who to marry, when to marry and whether to marry at all", including in independent faith schools, campaigners have said.

Jewish counter-extremism group Nahamu (logo pictured) highlighted how a lack of relationships and sex education (RSE) contributes to forced marriage in Charedi Jewish communities in a position paper published this month.

The paper argues some Charedi arranged marriages fall within the definition of forced marriage under UK law, and calls for government action to protect young people in Charedi (ultra-Orthodox) communities.

The National Secular Society has previously highlighted the failures of many Charedi schools to deliver adequate education in RSE.

RSE in Charedi Jewish communities

The paper says the education of young people in Charedi communities can be "severely limited" because Charedi schools may redact material that is "not consistent with a specific world view".

It adds that:

  • The lack of RSE in Charedi schools means engaged couples "may not be prepared for sexual relations" and are "unlikely to have any meaningful awareness of what it means to consent".
  • People in Charedi communities may not "understand or recognise abusive behaviours", including sexual abuse, marital rape or domestic abuse.
  • There is a "total exclusion" of any reference to LGBT+ people in "both educational and social contexts". This means LGBT+ people in Charedi communities face "additional challenges" and "very serious issues of consent" when presented with a universal expectation of early, heterosexual marriage.

The paper identifies other factors leading to forced marriage in Charedi communities, including rushed engagements with very little contact between the marrying couple; community-enforced penalties for breaking engagements; and difficulties in obtaining a divorce.

It says "improved education, particularly in schools" in Charedi communities is the best way to improve compliance with laws prohibiting forced marriage.

It recommends that the Department for Education should ensure education around forced marriage is included in mandatory RSE, including in maintained and independent Charedi schools, with support from school watchdog Ofsted.


An NSS spokesperson called the paper a "wake-up call" to the problem of forced marriage in conservative religious communities.

He said: "The paper's recommendations once again emphasise the need for all schools, including independent faith schools, to teach age-appropriate, LGBT-inclusive RSE to all pupils.

"A considerable number of state-funded and independent Jewish schools refuse to do this on religious grounds. This paper has highlighted some of the significant dangers of this.

"Children in insular religious communities are most in need of education about relationships and sex. Turning a blind eye will leave more young people at risk of forced marriage and abuse."

Jewish schools' opposition to RSE: some recent examples

  • In 2020, 17 rabbis said Charedi Jewish schools would refuse to compromise with requirements to teach about the existence of same-sex couples in RSE.
  • In 2019 a BBC expose revealed that two state-funded Jewish schools in north London had encouraged parents to opt children out of RSE. The NSS then revealed that the government had dismissed concerns about community pressures at one of the schools.
  • In 2019 the NSS also revealed that ultra-orthodox Jewish schools were planning to refuse to teach aspects of RSE by exploiting loopholes in government regulations.

Nahamu logo via Twitter.

Outdoor wedding

Give couples greater freedom over where they marry, says NSS

Posted: Fri, 22 Jan 2021 11:33

The National Secular Society has welcomed proposals to grant couples more freedom over where they choose to marry in England and Wales in response to a consultation.

Last year the Law Commission proposed comprehensive reforms to wedding law in England and Wales.

The NSS has now responded to the commission's consultation on the plans, and said they offer "a balanced, practical and sensible model for more equal and inclusive weddings for people of all religions and none".

The commission's proposals include the introduction of an officiant-based system for the legal recognition of marriage, to replace the current restrictive building-based system, in line with previous NSS recommendations.

In response to the consultation the NSS said this change would "significantly increase freedom and fairness for all couples to marry how they want, and where they want".

The change would mean more couples could legally marry outdoors if they chose to do so, and would be in line with existing law in Scotland.

Currently only Jewish and Quaker weddings are legally recognised if they take place outdoors in England and Wales.

Other proposals and NSS response

The NSS also supported several other proposals which it has previously lobbied for.

These included a plan to introduce universal civil preliminaries – the steps that must be taken before a couple is authorised to have a legally binding wedding. The society said this would make the law clearer and fairer.

The NSS also said several of the commission's other proposals would expand couples' freedom of choice, including:

  • A plan to relax prohibitions on religious content – for example in songs, readings and hymns – in civil weddings.
  • A more inclusive approach to authorising which religious groups can officiate legally-recognised weddings, and a move to consider including "non-religious belief groups" into the sphere of groups that can nominate officiants.
  • A recommendation to consider enabling independent officiants to hold legally-recognised weddings.

NSS comment

NSS head of policy and research Megan Manson said: "The Law Commission's proposals would bring substantial and welcome change to wedding law.

"They would make the law simpler and grant couples greater opportunity to marry in a way that's meaningful to them.

"The commission and the government should proceed with plans to reform the law in this area, and ensure freedom, fairness and individual rights are central considerations in their plans as they do so."


Photo by Shardayyy Photography on Unsplash.

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