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Human behaviour

Glenys ThorntonGlenys Thornton on resolving the injustice against Humanist weddings

Monday saw the first day of Committee on the Same Sex Marriage Bill, where it became clear after a three hour debate on how to distinguish Same Sex Marriage from so called “traditional” marriage that opposition to this bill has not gone away. Despite a huge defeat on Second Reading, opponents reheated and repeated their earlier speeches, in part because their arguments rely on belief and prejudice not evidence or fact.

So we sat until 11pm debating conscience clauses, Registrars and free speech – including whether those opposed to same sex marriage needed special protection. The bill is already behind Schedule, but at least we’re getting some clearer idea of where opponents will force votes at Report stage. 

On Wednesday, day two of Committee will start with a more positive development, with an amendment to at long last legalise and recognise Humanist weddings. We will discuss the thorny issue of pension rights for those in same sex marriages who survive the death of a partner.

I have been a humanist all my life, and it seems very unfair that if either of my children had wished to have been married at a Humanist wedding service they would have to go to Scotland, Sweden, the US or Australia. To be married at home however, they would have had to have a civic ceremony followed by a humanist ceremony, with the spirituality and commitment that marriage ceremonies encompass to make it the most special day. 

Humanist choice is restricted by a closed shop of the old fashioned rules of marriage in the UK, to say nothing of having to pay twice for the pleasure.

It strikes me that the Coalition government’s red tape challenge and its stated commitments to both competition and equality should lead us to conclude that this area is one where there is an injustice and unfairness in need of a remedy. So I hope today we get a positive response from Ministers. And bearing in mind it is 19 years since that last marriage bill, one can’t blame Humanists for thinking it unreasonable to have to wait another 19 before this anachronism is addressed.

Legal recognition for Humanist marriages is not just supported by the current Shadow Cabinet but party policy of the LibDems and backed by MPs from all sides. An amendment introduced at the Committee stage of the Bill in the Commons fell when a 7-7 tie was resolved by the casting vote of the Chair, who voted against. At Report, objections were raised by the Attorney General and the Secretary of the State. But the amendment now tabled for the Lords should address all the matters raised by the government and clear the way for this sensible change.

It really is time to stop giving lots of reasons not to allow Humanists weddings and accept that they should happen, so experiences like the following do not happen anymore:

“I got married twice in a week. My first marriage was conducted by someone who had interviewed my wife and me twice, at length, before the wedding; who spent hours (and several emails) exploring the key elements of the connection we wished to celebrate during the ceremony; and offered her guidance when we requested it, based on her knowledge of us as individuals and as a couple.

My second wedding – to the same woman, I should hasten to add – happened two days later. It was conducted by an official who had met us for the first time minutes before, and was conducted with the polite efficiency of a market research interview. My first wedding was conducted by a Humanist Celebrant; my second by a registrar. Needless to say, when I think of my wedding, and the vows I committed to, the second set I gave that week rarely cross my mind. Yet it is this exchange currently recognised in UK law.”

So which date do you think this couple celebrate as their anniversary?

Baroness Glenys Thornton is Labour’s Shadow Equalities Minister in the Lords

Published 18th June 2013