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Religious marriages and civil law

Throughout the United Kingdom, parties wishing to marry may do so either by a religious ceremony or by a secular ceremony conducted by a state-appointed registrar of marriages at a register (...)

Throughout the United Kingdom, parties wishing to marry may do so either by a religious ceremony or by a secular ceremony conducted by a state-appointed registrar of marriages at a register office or some other location (such as a hotel) licensed for the purpose. In the case of weddings in the Church of England and the Church in Wales, the whole procedure including the preliminaries as to notices and licences, is carried out by the church. In other cases a religious ceremony requires certain civil preliminaries, usually the grant of a ‘superintendent registrar’s certificate’ after notice has been given 21 days beforehand. In England (but not in Scotland where different rules apply) a non-Anglican religious ceremony must be held in a registered building (or, for historical reasons, a synagogue or a Meeting House of the Society of Friends) and registered either by the minister if he is authorised for the purpose or by a registrar of marriages.

Although the Roman Catholic Church maintains its system of diocesan tribunals to hear nullity of marriage cases, the decisions of those tribunals have no legal status in United Kingdom law. The Anglican Consistory courts, which are part of the English legal system, have had no matrimonial jurisdiction since 1857 when the secular courts assumed this function. There is a matrimonial jurisdiction, equally denied direct recognition by English law, in the rabbinical courts. Provision was made to deal with some of the consequences of the existence of this jurisdiction in the Divorce (Religious Marriages) Act 2002. This sought to remedy the plight of some Jewish women who may have their marriages ended by a divorce in the civil courts but who find themselves in grave difficulty because the other spouse refuses to enter into the religious divorce procedure of a get from the rabbinical court. The Act enables the courts to issue an order that the civil divorce decree shall not be made absolute until both parties certify that the required religious procedures have been complied with.

The churches, and especially the Church of England, are regularly consulted on family law matters. Any change in marriage law (for example relaxations in 1986 in the law as to affinity) is preceded by close consultation; in that case a Church report was prepared for and published by the Archbishop of Canterbury before the State acted.

D 11 September 2012    ADavid McClean

Religious and civil marriages in Britain: changing trends and challenges of recognition

The number of religious marriages in the UK has been in gradual decline, with more and more couples opting out for social ceremonies. According to the figures released by the Office for National (...)

The number of religious marriages in the UK has been in gradual decline, with more and more couples opting out for social ceremonies. According to the figures released by the Office for National Statistics, less than a quarter (22%) of all marriages in 2017 were religious ceremonies, compared to 49% in late 1970s. This represents the lowest percentage on record (ONS – Release date: 14 April 2020). The reasons behind this fall are attributed to the decline in the overall number of all marriages, high costs of weddings, as well as the rise in popularity of civil marriage ceremonies.

In 2018, the Law Commission started a review of marriage ceremonies in Britain, with the view of giving more flexibility for religious and non-religious organisations to conduct marriage ceremonies. At the same time, some questions have also been raised in relation to the accuracy of registering religious marriages amongst religious minorities (e.g. see Akhtar 2018 on Muslim marriage practices and legal considerations). Key debates, however, have increasingly centred on the issue of civil marriages and humanist weddings.

In July 2019, the UK Government announced its upcoming review into marriage laws in England and Wales. The remit of the work given to the Law Commission included ‘developing a scheme that would allow non-religious belief groups, such as humanists, and independent celebrants to celebrate weddings’. Some of the proposed changes included fast-track legal recognition of civil marriages taking place in outdoor venues, but it omitted legal recognition of humanist marriages. Humanists have continued to campaign on the issue: if religious people were given ‘a choice between being married by a civil registrar or being married by a representative of their religion’ those who favoured a humanist wedding ‘have to have a separate civil marriage in order to be legally married’. Not only would this carry extra costs and administrative burdens but it also would be deemed discriminatory.

Humanist organisations have long campaigned for legal recognition for both humanist and same-sex marriage ceremonies. Humanist marriages have already been recognised as legally binding in Scotland (since 2005), Northern Ireland, Ireland and Jersey, with Guernsey currently in the process of extending legal recognition too. Examples of different processes of legalising humanist marriages in Scotland and Northern Ireland can be found in Humanist Wedding Ceremonies, 2019 pp. 17-19.

There has been a growing public support to grant legal recognition in England and Wales. However, under current legislation, there are no specific provisions for marriages to be conducted according to any non-religious system of belief (e.g. humanism).

In January 2020, Baroness Meacher introduced the Marriage (Approved Organisations) Bill in the House of Lords. The Bill aims to amend the Marriage Act 1949 to permit authorised belief organisations to solemnise marriages. The amendment states that ‘for the purposes of subsection (1), the British Humanist Association is an authorised belief organisation’ (Marriage (Approved Organisations) Bill 2020, p. 3). A more detailed discussion of the Bill has been provided by Frank Cranmer and David Pocklington 2020.

The Bill received its first reading on 9 January 2020.  Second reading and the general debate on all aspects of the Bill is yet to be scheduled – watch this space for further updates on the subject.

D 10 June 2020    AKatya Braginskaia

CNRS Unistra Dres Gsrl

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