Why I want the BHA to perform weddings, but not marriages.

ringsAs I started to write this, the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Bill passed its third reading in the House of Commons by 366 votes to 161. I was delighted and I hope it will now quickly pass third reading in the Lords and become law. I don’t want to discuss the main bill here, I want to talk about an amendment which sought to have Humanist marriages legally recognised.

During the debate, those opposing  Humanist marriages advanced the argument that if Humanists are allowed to perform marriages then other secular groups would demand that right as well. One of the sillier examples given by the Attorney General, Dominic Grieve, was the Tiddlywinks Society.

The amendment was dropped after the intervention of the Attorney General. He argued that the amendment would make the Bill contravene the Human Rights Act and, to save the main bill, it was dropped. I don’t follow the logic of the Attorney General but I am actually glad the amendment was dropped, and I hope I can explain why.

Firstly let me say I am a supporter of Equal marriage. I am also a member of the BHA and I think their celebrants do a fantastic job. I am very much in favour of them carrying out Humanist weddings, I just don’t think they should be legally recognised as marriages.

The current situation (which will not change if the main bill becomes law) is that the state effectively grants licenses to certain institutions (religions) to perform legal marriages, on behalf of the state, as part of their own wedding ceremonies. Or to put it another way, certain sets of (religious) beliefs are granted privileges over other sets of beliefs by the state.

This is exactly the kind of thing that secular organisations like the BHA should be fighting against, but instead, they are asking for their set of beliefs to be privileged too.

On the BHA website it says:

But we want the law in England, Wales and Northern Ireland to allow humanist celebrants to conduct legal marriages as it does in Scotland. This would give non-religious people the same choice that religious people have of a meaningful ceremony composed by a person who shares their values and approach to life.”

But that’s not true is it? That change in the law would give “non-religious people” who are Humanists the same choice as religious people. If I was a non-religious practicing homeopath and astrologer, I very much doubt that the local Humanist celebrant would be “a person who shares [my] values and approach to life.”

This amendment would simply add one more group, to the list of the privileged. Just because that group happens to be one that I belong to, and also happens not to be religious should not disguise the fact that it is still just another group asking for privileged status. This change would not give the same choice to Pagans, Greens, Socialists, Satanists, Spiritualists, Naturists . . . well you get the point.

In my view the rational, secular, way forward is to remove the legal connection between the marriage and the wedding. It is really just a slightly specialised example of the separation of church and state.

The state could choose to recognise certain relationships between qualifying people as “marriages”. These can have legal recognition and have legal implications, for rights of inheritance for instance, and, crucially, they would take place in state, registry offices. People would then be free to celebrate their own relationship in a “wedding” of their choice. It could take place anywhere and be conducted by anyone, or any group, according to the wishes of those involved. This “wedding” would have no legal recognition of any kind.

In purely practical terms this would not really be a hardship for those who are getting “married”. Many people currently have a registry office wedding followed by a church blessing and, after all, most people are at least hoping to do this only once.

We are quite content that other ceremonies are separated from their legal counterparts. We do not expect that a funeral removes our obligation to go to a registry office to legally register a death. We don’t think a Christening (or other naming ceremony) removes the legal need to go to a registry office to register a birth. Why should it be different for marriage?

So I’m glad that Humanism has not been “promoted” to join the “privileged elite”.

  • Lets allow our celebrants continue to do their excellent work unhindered by having to be an arm of the state.
  • Lets not bring the amendment back in the Lords
  • Let’s continue the secular drive to separate church and state.
  • And lets happily separate the marriage from the wedding.
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