Northern Ireland: Couple win humanist marriage case; appeal set

Northern Ireland: Couple win humanist marriage case; appeal set June 13, 2017

This is from Humanists UK (formerly British Humanist Association):

Humanists Laura Lacole and Eunan O’Kane have won their challenge to gain legal recognition for their humanist wedding, due to take place in Northern Ireland later this month. The decision was issued today by the High Court, just two weeks after the hearing in the case, as the judge was keen to ensure that Laura and Eunan have time to plan accordingly for their wedding. The impact is that humanist marriages immediately gain legal recognition across Northern Ireland.

Humanists UK and its section Northern Ireland Humanists, who supported model/public speaker Laura and Leeds United/Republic of Ireland midfielder Eunan in bringing the case, have expressed their delight at the news. Since Scotland and the Republic have also previously granted such recognition, England and Wales are now left lagging behind as the only part of the UK and Ireland yet to make the change – something that must surely now be much more likely to follow.

Welcoming the outcome, Laura commented, ‘We’re delighted to have won our case today. It means that in two weeks’ time we can legally marry in a way that reflects our beliefs. Our humanist ceremony will speak to our values and the love Eunan and I have for each other in a way no other marriage ceremony could. We’re thrilled  that our action has extended the same choice to thousands of other couples.’

Humanists UK Chief Executive Andrew Copson added, ‘This case is a great result for fairness and equality in Northern Ireland, meaning that humanists can now have humanist wedding ceremonies that match their personal beliefs, are conducted by a celebrant who shares their values, and – for the first time – have legal recognition.

‘We look forward to working with the Northern Irish authorities to see this recognition put into practice. And we urge all Westminster parties to take heed, as England and Wales are now left as the only part of the UK or Ireland where such recognition is still lacking. All it needs is that the Justice Secretary lays an order in Parliament.’

About the case and its likely impact

The case was taken on human rights grounds, targeting the discriminatory law that has meant that religious people are able to have legal marriage ceremonies in line with their beliefs, but humanists have, until now, not been able to do likewise. The judge has now ordered existing law to be reinterpreted so as to be read as giving Humanists UK celebrants the power to marry people, immediately granting Laura and Eunan and other humanist couples what they sought. Whether or not there is an appeal remains to be seen.

Legal recognition has already had a transformative effect on Scottish and Irish society. In Scotland, humanist marriages gained legal recognition in 2005, and have risen in number from 85 in the first year to over 4,300 in 2015, overtaking the Church of Scotland in the process. In the Republic of Ireland, humanist marriages gained legal recognition in 2012. In 2015 around six percent of legal marriages were humanist, more than three times as many as there were (Protestant) Church of Ireland marriages.

In England and Wales, marriage law is different from in Northern Ireland and Scotland. But as the case was taken on human rights grounds, the underlying principles are very similar, and so the prospects of legal recognition have now become much more likely. Since 2013 the UK Government has had the power to extend legal recognition if it wishes, but hasn’t chosen to use this power yet. Now Humanists UK will be asking all parties again to commit to doing so.

However, the decision is set to be appealed by the Attorney General:

A date has now been set for the Court of Appeal hearing in the ongoing case to secure legal recognition for humanist marriages in Northern Ireland. The case involves humanists Laura Lacole, a model and public speaker, and Eunan O’Kane, a footballer with the Republic of Ireland and Leeds United. The couple, backed by Humanists UK, won their case at the Belfast High Court on Friday, but the decision has been appealed to the Court of Appeal. A hearing has now been scheduled for Monday 19 June.

The couple are due to wed on 22 June, and as such the case was expedited through the High Court to ensure a decision was reached in time for their wedding. That meant that having received permission for their case to be heard before the High Court on 9 May, the case had its full hearing just 17 days later, on 26 May. Just 14 days after that, on the morning of 9 June, the High Court ruled in their favour, thus extending legal recognition to humanist marriages in Northern Ireland. But that afternoon the Northern Ireland Attorney General chose to appeal the ruling, meaning that the Court of Appeal will hear the case just ten days after the High Court’s decision. This then leaves a further two days for it to rule before the wedding is due to take place.

Humanists UK Chief Executive Andrew Copson commented, ‘The Attorney General is spending a surprising amount of effort and public money just to stop two people in love from getting married in the way they wish. We very much hope that he will be unsuccessful, both for Laura and Eunan’s sake, as well as that of the thousands more couples who are set to benefit from the original court ruling.’

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