Reform wedding laws

Reform wedding laws

Page 7 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Wedding law in England and Wales is badly out of date.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


Marriage law in England & Wales is discriminatory, High Court rules

Posted: Fri, 31 Jul 2020 15:55

The High Court has ruled that marriage law in England and Wales gives rise to discrimination on religion and belief grounds, in a judgment which could prompt wide-ranging reform.

The court found six Humanist couples suffered "real" discrimination because Humanist marriages are not recognised in law.

But their attempt to secure legal recognition for Humanist marriage was dismissed because the government is "considering the appropriate remedy" as part of a "wholesale reform" of marriage law.

The couples desired to be legally married "according to the usages of" Humanists UK, which supported their claim, and without the attendance of state officials at their weddings.

They said they were being treated differently because religious groups can have legally-recognised marriages. They claimed a breach of the right to freedom of religion or belief, which is protected by human rights law.

Mrs Justice Eady accepted the government's defence that reform of marriage law cannot be undertaken in a "piecemeal" fashion.

She added that if Humanist marriages were given legal recognition "that may well give rise to questions as to whether wider reforms are necessary".

The court noted that the Law Commission concurred with the government's view and is set to hold a consultation on marriage law later this year.

NSS position on relevant marriage law

Currently Anglican, Jewish and Quaker marriages are automatically recognised in law. Marriages of other religious groups are legally recognised if they take place in a registered place of worship.

Civil marriages must take place in 'approved premises' and no religious content is permitted in the ceremony.

The National Secular Society is campaigning for wide-ranging reforms to the marriage laws to ensure greater simplicity, equality and freedom for all.

NSS comment

NSS head of policy and research Megan Manson welcomed the ruling.

"We welcome the clear recognition from the court that England and Wales's current marriage laws are discriminatory and not fit for purpose.

"It is also encouraging that the court recognises the wisdom in wider reforms to marriage law to ensure equality for all. Marriage legislation has been made on a piecemeal basis for too long, resulting in an over-complex system that privileges some groups and discriminates against others.

"Our proposals for one marriage law for all, suitable for all couples whatever their religion or belief, would give much-needed simplicity, clarity and equity to the institution of marriage. We look forward to discussing these further with the Law Commission."

Photo by Doğukan Benli from Pexels.

Discuss on Facebook

Same-sex marriage

Success: government won’t extend same-sex marriage exemptions in NI

Posted: Fri, 17 Jul 2020 13:54

The government has confirmed businesses will not be able to refuse services for same-sex marriages in Northern Ireland after lobbying from the National Secular Society.

Exceptions in equality law allowing religious organisations to refuse to solemnise same-sex marriages would not be extended to other service providers, ministers said on Thursday.

This includes hoteliers, florists and wedding photographers.

The announcement was made in a report on the government's consultation on same-sex religious marriage in Northern Ireland, held at the beginning of the year.

Religious lobbying and NSS response

The Presbyterian Church in Ireland and the DUP lobbied for exemptions to be extended to include Christian owned businesses who do not wish to provide services to same-sex couples.

In March the NSS wrote to the secretary of state for Northern Ireland, Brandon Lewis MP, to highlight the dangerous impact any additional exemptions would have on UK equality law.

The NSS argued that any weakening of protections against discrimination would undermine equal citizenship.

Same-sex marriage has been legally recognised in Northern Ireland since 13 January after the UK parliament backed its legalisation last year.

Under the new laws, religious bodies can consent to officiating same-sex weddings. Twelve religious bodies that responded to the consultation indicated that they would do so.

NSS comment

NSS head of policy and research Megan Manson said: "It's welcome news that the government has not given into lobbying from Christian groups who want free rein to discriminate against same-sex couples.

"All businesses, regardless of the religion of their owners, should be equally accountable to the law.

"We also welcome the government's commitment to enable religious organisations that do accept LGBT people to solemnise same-sex weddings."

The debate on this issue highlights a deeper issue of the entanglement of religion and state in the legal institution of marriage. The lack of separation has resulted in significant complexity in the laws that govern marriage throughout the UK.

Image by Bhakti Kulmala from Pixabay.

More information