Wedding laws – Frequently Asked Questions

Wedding laws – Frequently Asked Questions

There are essentially five types of legally-binding wedding in England and Wales: Church of England, Jewish, Quaker, other religious, and civil (nonreligious). Each type is governed by different sets of laws.

In most cases, what determines the type of wedding is the building where it takes place. Religious weddings must be held in a registered place of worship, while civil weddings and partnerships must take place in approved premises.

For historical reasons, an exception to this are Jewish and Quaker weddings, which can take place anywhere.

The law should treat everyone the same, whatever their religion or belief. But wedding laws in England and Wales treat couples quite differently depending on their religion, giving lots of freedom to some but more restrictions to others.

There are over 39,700 places of worship registered for weddings, but approximately only 7,500 approved premises for civil weddings and partnerships.

The process for a place of worship to register itself is much cheaper than for a civil premises. A religious venue only needs to pay a one-off fee of £123 to its council to be registered. But a civil marriage venue needs to pay to renew its license every three years and the fee is considerably higher; sometimes close to £1000. This in turn contributes to the cost of weddings.

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, less than 2% of places of worship were registered for same-sex marriage. This considerably reduces the options for same-sex couples.

The law is not working well for interfaith couples, or those who want a civil wedding but with some inclusion of religious elements, such as hymns or blessings. We want to end the restrictions on religious content which currently exist for civil marriage ceremonies. It would give couples more freedom to have a ceremony that's right for them.

The National Secular Society is campaigning for comprehensive reform of wedding laws so that all couples can follow the same legal processes when getting married. This could mean changing the law so that what determines marriage's legal status is the officiant and registration process, and not the building where it takes place. This would give all couples greater freedom to marry where they wish, including outdoors, a privilege that is currently restricted to Jewish and Quaker weddings.

We've worked with the Law Commission on many years on reforming wedding laws for greater simplicity, equality and fairness for all. We therefore welcome the Commission's official recommendations published in 2022, which were mainly in line with our own recommendation. We're now campaigning for these recommendations to be made law.

The complexity over the legal status of religious weddings has contributed to a rise in couples who have religious matrimonial ceremonies but are unaware that they do not necessarily constitute a legal marriage. This is a particular problem among some Muslim communities. In 2014, a study of 50 Muslim women in the West Midlands found that while 46 were in an Islamic 'nikah' marriage, only five were in a legally-recognised civil marriage. Over half were unaware that they lacked the full legal rights and protections of civil marriage.

We believe better citizenship education is necessary to ensure every individual understands the rights and responsibilities involved in entering a marriage. Additionally, robust legal protections should continue to exist to protect people from fraud and abuse of the marriage system. Anyone falsely purporting to be an official marriage registrar should be subject to legal penalties.

Sharia councils, or 'courts', exacerbate the issues regarding unregistered Islamic marriages.

There are thought to be over 100 sharia councils in the UK, offering arbitration and mediation services, and dispensing religious rulings on marriage, child custody and divorce. These are not courts of law but there are concerns that Muslim women (especially those not born in the UK or unable to speak English) perceive them as having real legal authority.

Sharia is a system which leaves children vulnerable and discriminates openly against women, undermining their legal and political equality. Sharia councils have acted in ways contrary to the law, leaving women vulnerable to domestic abuse. As such, we argue that the state needs to better tackle the numerous problems and dangers the use of sharia councils brings with it.

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 she had faced abuse.

If a woman is 'divorced' suddenly, or against her wishes, she can be left homeless and without any money or assets, because the 'marriage' has no legal force, giving her no rights or legal protections.

Protecting women's rights is the priority, but that isn't the only concern. The existence of these parallel legal systems poses a threat to common citizenship and undermines the integrity of secular law.

Worryingly, many sharia councils operate as part of registered charities, and therefore receive tax breaks.

There is no easy answer to challenging the hold of sharia councils over these communities. The problem is not only one of supply, but also of demand. If there is no demand for sharia councils, the influence of these bodies will collapse. We believe the demand for sharia is best tackled in the education system as a part of citizenship education and this will be aided by anything that breaks down barriers between communities and reduces segregation. We also think the charity status of any charities which operate sharia councils should be reviewed.

If you are affected by any issues relating to unregistered marriages, sharia councils, or forced marriage, there are specialist organisations which can help. These include:

One Law for All

Karma Nirvana

Southall Black Sisters


If you are in imminent danger, please contact the police by telephoning 999. Forced marriage and domestic abuse are serious crimes.

We think that religions should be free to determine their own doctrine on marriage. However, the Church of England's continued refusal to hold same-sex marriages, and its official position that gay sex is a sin, presents a particular problem because it is the established church.

If being an established church means anything at all, it should mean offering the same level of service to all citizens. The Church's official homophobia is at odds with this.

What's more, there are no laws preventing any other religious group from holding same-sex weddings if they choose to. But uniquely, the Church of England is prevented by a 'quadruple lock' from holding same-sex weddings, requiring an act of parliament to undo. The CofE itself lobbied for the 'quadruple lock'.

We think the best solution is for the CofE to be disestablished and any legal barriers to same-sex CofE weddings removed. This would put the CofE in the same position as any other religious group to choose whether or not to hold same-sex marriages.