Reform wedding laws

Reform wedding laws

Page 9 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Wedding law in England and Wales is badly out of date.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

Royal Courts of Justice

Islamic marriage invalid under English law, court rules

Posted: Thu, 20 Feb 2020 13:28

A ruling that a Muslim 'marriage' was void rather than a non-marriage has been overturned at the Court of Appeal.

The court has said Nasreen Akhter and Mohammed Shabaz Khan, who had an Islamic 'nikah' wedding ceremony in 1998 but no civil ceremony, did not have a legally valid marriage.

The couple, who separated in 2016 and have four children, both knew the nikah ceremony had no legal effect and intended to follow it with a civil ceremony.

The original ruling in 2018 entitled Akhter to a decree of nullity, which rules a marriage void and entitles parties to financial protections under civil law.

That ruling was partly based on the fact the couple held themselves out to the world at large as husband and wife and that their vows had similar expectations to British marriage contracts.

But the appeal court found the nikah was a non-qualifying ceremony and the partners were not marrying under the provisions of English law.

It noted that the ceremony was not performed in a registered building, no notice had been given to the superintendent registrar and no certificates had been issued.

The National Secular Society campaigns for religion to be separated from marriage law and encourages efforts to promote greater awareness of what constitutes a legal marriage in religious minority communities.

NSS chief executive Stephen Evans said: "This ruling again highlights the need for comprehensive reform of England and Wales's archaic marriage laws to make the process of marriage clear, fair and consistent for all.

"As an institution with serious legal implications, the civil act of marriage should follow a secular process. Couples should be free to hold whatever religious or secular ceremonies they want immediately before or after the formal civil registration moment, but no religious ceremony in and of itself should have legal implications.

"What determines a marriage's legal status should be the registration process, and not the building where it takes place."

The Law Commission is currently reviewing the marriage laws in England and Wales.

Image by Steve Brown from Pixabay.

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Abortion rights rally

NSS welcomes legalisation of abortion & marriage equality in NI

Posted: Tue, 22 Oct 2019 14:53

The National Secular Society has welcomed the legalisation of abortion in Northern Ireland and the extension of same-sex marriage rights to the province.

Legislation making the changes, which was passed by MPs at Westminster in July, came into force on Tuesday morning.

Under NI's previous laws abortion was only allowed if a woman's life was at risk or there was a risk of permanent and serious damage to her mental or physical health. Just 13 women had terminations in NHS hospitals in NI in 2016-17.

NI was also the only part of the UK where same-sex marriage was not recognised.

Religion was a key reason for the draconian laws. Influential Protestant and Catholic politicians and groups staunchly opposed liberalisation in parliament and in court, despite significant public support for change.

The NSS has repeatedly called for reform of the laws in NI and raised the issue of abortion rights in a submission to the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) in 2016.

NSS chief executive Stephen Evans said the changes were "welcome and overdue".

"Human rights and personal autonomy should never be restricted by state adherence to religious dogma.

"Under Northern Ireland's previous laws women were unable to access reproductive healthcare or control their bodies, while same-sex couples were subject to an unjustifiable legal indignity that infringed their ability to marry.

"The fact this will now change is a reminder of the importance of standing up to politicians with theocratic agendas."

Previous NSS lobbying at the UN

  • The NSS submitted evidence to the UNHRC in 2016 as the council reviewed the UK's record on human rights. The society said Northern Ireland's restrictions on abortion were out of touch with international human rights norms.

Other notes

  • The legislation would not have come into effect if the Northern Ireland assembly had blocked it by Monday evening. Politicians from the Democratic Unionist Party triggered the recall of the assembly in an attempt to block the change on abortion, but lacked the cross-party support necessary to do any business.
  • The changes to the abortion laws will mean women and girls can terminate pregnancies without fear of being prosecuted, and healthcare workers cannot now be prosecuted for carrying out abortions.
  • Earlier this month the high court ruled that NI's abortion laws breached the UK's human rights commitments. The supreme court ruled that the laws were incompatible with human rights legislation last year.
  • A UN committee recommended that the UK government should decriminalise abortion and ensure women in Northern Ireland could legally terminate their pregnancies last year.

Image: London-Irish abortion rights rally, © Dmitry Dzhus, via Flickr [CC BY 2.0]

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