Northern Ireland news

Judge rules Co Antrim couple suffering 'discrimination' with humanist weddings not legally recognised in England

Finbar Graham and Jennifer McCalmont

A judge has ruled that a Co Antrim couple are suffering discrimination by being unable to have a legally-recognised humanist wedding in England.

Jennifer McCalmont and Finbar Graham from Carrickfergus were among six couples who asked the High Court in London to grant legal status to the non-religious service in England and Wales.

They want to marry at the beach on the south coast of England where they first went on holiday together, which is close to where Ms McCalmont's parents live.

The first legally-recognised humanist ceremony in Northern Ireland took place in 2017 when model and activist Laura Lacole married professional footballer Eunan O'Kane after a court challenge to change the law.

Model Laura Lacole and Republic of Ireland footballer Eunan O'Kane leaving the High Court after seeking to have their planned humanist wedding officially recognised. Picture by Cliff Donaldson

Today, High Court judge Mrs Justice Eady ruled that the failure to provide humanist marriages in England and Wales means that "the present law gives rise to... discrimination".

She said this means the Secretary of State for Justice "cannot… simply sit on his hands" and do nothing.

However, the judge said because the government is actively considering the issue with a review into marriage law by the Law Commission, its refusal to act immediately can be justified "at this time".

"Although I may deprecate the delay that has occurred since 2015, I cannot ignore the fact that there is currently an ongoing review of the law of marriage in this country," she said.

Mrs Justice Eady said this means she will not be making a formal declaration that the government is acting unlawfully at this time.

In her decision she rejected government arguments that humanist marriages are not sufficiently connected to humanism to merit legal protection and humanists are served by civil marriage provisions.

She said there is an intimate link between couples' beliefs and their choice of a humanist ceremony "in particular, in the way in which couples prepare for their wedding with their celebrant, in the statements made during the ceremony and in the emphasis on individual freedom of choice".

The government said consultation will be published in early September by the Law Commission.

Humanists UK welcomed the court clarification on the legal rights of humanists but expressed disappointment that the wait goes on for couples anxious for legal recognition.

Chief executive Andrew Copson said: "We've waited 19 years for this reform since it was first considered by the government in an ultimately abandoned review of marriage law, and seven years since Parliament gave the government the power to bring about legal recognition of humanist marriages without requiring a new Act."

Phoenix Law solicitor Ciaran Moynagh, who is representing Ms McCalmont and Mr Graham, said his clients feel "disappointment... (but) are greatly encouraged by the contents of the court ruling as the substantive argument has been won".

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