Reform wedding laws

Reform wedding laws

Page 6 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Wedding law in England and Wales is badly out of date.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

Maira Shahbaz

NSS raises case of girl subjected to forced marriage in Pakistan

Posted: Fri, 18 Dec 2020 12:15

The National Secular Society has backed a campaign to secure the freedom and safety of a 14-year-old girl in fear of her life in Pakistan after fleeing a forced marriage.

Maira Shahbaz and her family are in hiding after defying a Lahore High Court ruling that she should return to Mohamad Nakash Tariq, 30 years her senior, who claims to be her husband.

She has said Mr Nakash has threatened to kill both her and her family.

Her ordeal

The 14-year-old was abducted at gunpoint in April 2020, gang-raped, forcibly converted to Islam and forced to marry her abductor.

She later escaped Nakash's custody and fled into hiding with her parents. She told police that Nakash filmed her being raped and threatened to release the video online if she resisted.

In July a court ordered that she should be placed in a women's shelter. But Lahore's High Court overturned this in August, forcing her to return to Nakash on the grounds that she had embraced Islam and the marriage was valid.

This was despite her family producing a birth certificate showing the girl to be 13 at the time of the alleged ceremony.

Campaign and NSS backing

Catholic charity Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) is leading a campaign calling on prime minister Boris Johnson to grant her asylum.

In a letter to the prime minister, the NSS has urged the UK government to do everything in its power to secure the freedom and safety of Ms Shabbaz and her family.

NSS chief executive, Stephen Evans, said: "This is a particularly harrowing example of the all too common phenomenon of forced marriage and forced conversion of women and girls from religious minorities in Pakistan.

"Unless Maira can escape Pakistan, she will be condemned as an apostate by her abductor and his supporters – and will be at risk of being killed.

"We understand Maira Shahbaz and her family are seeking asylum in the UK. We hope the UK government will do everything possible to facilitate that, or to assist in guaranteeing her safety elsewhere."

On 14 December, the UK minister for South Asia, Commonwealth and United Nations, Tariq Ahmad, said the government was "closely monitoring developments" in the case.


  • Those wishing to back calls for the prime minister to grant UK asylum to Maira Shahbaz and her family can sign a petition on the ACN website.
  • According to a report by the Movement for Solidarity and Peace in Pakistan, an estimated one thousand girls from Christian and Hindu backgrounds are forced to convert and marry Muslim men in Pakistan every year.
  • UNICEF estimates that 21% of girls in Pakistan are married by the age of 18, and three per cent before they turn 15.

With archive image of Maira Shahbaz, © Aid to the Church in Need.


NSS welcomes plan to give couples more freedom over where they marry

Posted: Thu, 3 Sep 2020 11:58

The National Secular Society has welcomed proposals to grant couples more freedom over where they choose to marry as part of a comprehensive reform of England and Wales's wedding laws.

The Law Commission has proposed introducing an officiant-based system for the legal recognition of marriage, to replace the current restrictive building-based system, in line with NSS recommendations.

This would mean all weddings were legally permitted to take place in a location chosen by the couple. Couples will be able to marry outdoors or in their own homes.

The proposals would enact several measures which the NSS has lobbied for:

  • Universal legal rules would be introduced for all weddings, with very few exceptions. Different rules currently apply to Anglican weddings, Jewish and Quaker weddings, other religious weddings, and civil weddings.
  • A requirement that some ceremonies include "prescribed words" would be abolished. Couples will now be able to have religious songs, readings and hymns as part of their civil weddings, provided the ceremony is still identifiable as a civil ceremony.
  • Universal civil preliminaries – the steps that must be taken before a couple is authorised to have a legally binding wedding – would be introduced.

They would also allow weddings conducted by non-religious belief organisations, such as Humanists, or independent celebrants to be recognised, if the government decided to permit them.

The Law Commission will now consult on its proposals before making recommendations to the government.

Commission's justification

The commission says the current law is a "complex maze of different rules for different types of ceremonies, based around the use of particular types of building".

"But in the past two centuries, England and Wales have experienced profound social changes. As a society, we are far more culturally and religiously diverse, we are far more secular and people want to celebrate their weddings in varied and unique ways."

It adds that the "essential" requirement to protect the state's interests and "ensure legal certainty" is that "each party to the marriage expresses their consent to marry the other".

NSS comment

NSS head of policy and research Megan Manson said the proposals would represent "a welcome and significant overhaul of the law governing weddings".

"If enacted these reforms would create a more secular and less restrictive system of marriage, giving couples the flexibility and freedom to marry in a way that is meaningful to them.

"There are also welcome signs that they would help to protect the individual rights of those marrying in a variety of religion and belief traditions.

"We look forward to responding to the consultation."


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