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Marriages in Northern Ireland

Irish Couple Fights for Non-Theist Marriage Ceremony

In Secular Humanism I Thee Wed 1

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Marriage in Northern Ireland:

Prior to 2017-JUN-09, couples in Northern Ireland could be married and have their marriage recognized only in one of two ways. They could have a religious wedding solemnized by a member of the clergy licensed by the government to perform marriages. Alternately, they could have a civil ceremony at their local registry office by a civil servant.

A couple in their twenties, Laura Lacole and Eunan O’Kane, wanted a third option. They are both Humanists and would like to be married in a formal ceremony that they create for themselves, and which respects their personal religious and ethical beliefs.

Review of the beliefs of Humanists (a.k.a. Secular Humanists:

Most Humanists share the following beliefs:

bullet Either they do not believe in the existence of one or more deities, or they have no opinion on the topic, or they find the topic devoid of meaning.

bullet They believe that excellent codes of behavior and morality can be created through logic and reason.

bullet They believe that humans created the many thousands of Gods and Goddesses in their own image.

bullet They are very concerned about human rights and equal opportunities for all.


They tend to be at the liberal end of the spectrum on such controversial topics as abortion access; equal rights for gays, lesbians, and bisexuals; transgender persons and transsexuals (GLBT); same-sex marriage, physician assisted suicide, separation of church and state, etc.

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The non-profit group Humanists UK list many definitions of "Humanism" on their web site. 2

Northern Ireland Humanists is a part of Humanists UK, and also works together with the Humanist Association of Ireland. They describe their role as advancing:

"... free thinking and promote humanism to create a tolerant society where rational thinking and kindness prevail. Our work brings non-religious people together to develop their own views, helping people be happier and more fulfilled in the one life we have. Through our ceremonies, education services, and community and campaigning work, we strive to create a fair and equal society for all." 3

One of the many goals of Humanists UK is to end "... religious privilege in marriage laws, through the legalization of humanist and same-sex marriage across the UK." 4

Scotland has already done this. So has the nearby country of Ireland that shares an island with Northern Ireland. However, England, Wales, and Northern Ireland have not permitted Humanist and similar secular weddings. Northern Ireland also does not permit same-sex couples to marry. That country and Australia are the only large predominately English-speaking countries remaining that do not permit gay weddings.

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Seeking a humanist wedding:

The Humanist Association of Ireland (HAI) answers the question" "Is a humanist wedding the right option for me" with the following comment:

"Humanist weddings are wonderful and personal ceremonies. One of the tenets of humanism is a tolerance for others who hold different belief systems. Therefore everyone feels included during a humanist ceremony.

However, humanists have no belief in a god or the supernatural, relying on scientific evidence and appreciation of the world around us and the achievements of humans. So our ceremonies are secular and non-religious occasions. They are designed to be a positive option for those who share the same philosophical belief system as humanists whether you wish to call yourself a humanist or not, and even whether you are a member of any humanist association or not.

Please think carefully about this choice. If you think you don’t share the same philosophy, or you actually believe in a god or the supernatural, then perhaps a humanist ceremony is not the right choice for you. There are many other organizations out there that would be a more appropriate vehicle for your special day." 5

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How popular might this third option be?

Laura Lacole and Eunan O’Kane are certainly not the only couple to have the same wish in Northern Ireland. Humanist weddings in nearby Scotland were legalized in 2005, and have since become very popular there:

Steve Chinn, writing for The Guardian in 2012-AUG, said:

"... the Registrar General shows that religious marriages are continuing to see a long term decline in Scotland -- while civil and humanist ones are on the rise, and in our case rising sharply. In fact, in 1971, only 1 Scottish wedding in 3 was non-religious. Today, it's just over 1 in 2. And half of those didn't take place in civil registrars' offices at all, but in a place of the couple's choosing.

Since humanist marriages became legal in Scotland in 2005, [and] given the same status as a traditional church wedding or one in a registry office, celebrants of the Humanist Society Scotland have married couples up hills and mountains, by lochsides, on beaches in the Isles, on boats, in back gardens, and in wedding venues in spectacular locations across the land. Each venue has to be safe and dignified – the Registrar General requires that - and as long as it is, it can be a place that really means something special to the couple.

There were fewer than 100 humanist weddings in 2005. But in the last year, just five years after their introduction, humanist celebrants have married 2,846 couples – confirming that our form of marriages the third most popular in Scotland, if we include civil ceremonies. To put that in perspective, 1,729 couples chose the Catholic Church to marry them last year, and 5,557 chose the Church of Scotland." 6

By 2015, there were 4,300 Humanist weddings, more than the number by the Church of Scotland!

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Court Hearing in Belfast’s High Court:

Laura Lacole, 27 and Eunan O’Kane, 26 are both Humanists and seek to have their Humanist-based wedding on 2017-JUN-22. Laura is a model; Eunan is a professional football/soccer player for Leeds United. They filed a lawsuit with Belfast's High Court to legalize their wedding ceremony, and make it possible for other secularists, Humanists, Atheists, Agnostics, "spiritual but not religious" couples, etc. to marry in ceremonies that are compatible with their beliefs. Their case was argued on the basis of them being denied the rights that are freely given to religiously affiliated. couples.

The plaintiffs were the General Register Office for Northern Ireland and the federal Department of Finance. 7

Laura said:

"I’m very pleased to have had my and Eunan’s case heard in court. As humanists, it is so important to us that we are able to have a wedding ceremony that reflects who we are as individuals -- our deepest beliefs and values -- and it is grossly unfair that such humanist ceremonies are not currently legally recognized, when that is not true of their religious counterparts. We eagerly await the decision of the court." 8

Andrew Copson, the Chief Executive of Humanists UK said:

"It is simply wrong that, while religious people are able to marry in a ceremony that matches their world view, humanists are not. More and more couples want to get married in a way that is unique to them, in matching their deepest-held viewpoints on life, and that is why humanist ceremonies are becoming increasingly popular right across the UK and Ireland. We very much hope that the court recognizes that it is the right thing to do to extend legal recognition to humanist marriage ceremonies."  8

Their hearing was held on 2017-MAY-26.

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They won their case in the High Court:

The Judge's decision was accelerated so that the couple would have sufficient time to organize their marriage in time.

Judge Mr Justice Colton found the existing law violated the couple's rights under the European Convention. 7

Laura responded:

"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."  9

She posted the following comment to the Atheist/Northern Ireland Facebook page:

"WE WON! We have changed the law! In two weeks time Eunan & I will have Northern Ireland's first legally recognized Humanist wedding ceremony and now so too can thousands of other couples! We are elated that the law in NI now recognizes non religious beliefs and no longer gives legal privilege to religious groups but instead treats all equally!

Thank you to Humanists UK, Northern Ireland Humanists and our legal team Steven McQuitty & Ciaran Moynagh for their support, guidance and hard work throughout! Also thank you to the judge Sir Justice Coltan for his judgment! Crying with joy! We've made history! THANK YOU."  9

Andrew Copson responded:

"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 [federal] Justice Secretary lays an order in Parliament."  9

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Attorney General appeals the High Court's ruling:

Within a matter of hours after the High Court issued their ruling, John Larkin QC -- the Northern Ireland Attorney General and a devout Roman Catholic -- announced that he was appealing the case.

Andrew Copson of Humanists UK said:

"This is a very disappointing development given the comprehensive nature of the judgment and is deeply upsetting for both Laura and Eunan, who were so happy to have had certainty in relation to their wedding later this month. Wedding plans are at an advanced stage and this hasty development has now created wholly unnecessary uncertainty and stress for the couple.

The Attorney General is going to extraordinary lengths at public expense just to stop two people who love each other from getting legally married in accordance with their beliefs. We hope that common decency might still prevail and that the Attorney General will reconsider this misconceived appeal. If an appeal does proceed, we at least hope it will be expedited and heard in advance of the wedding date or, if that is not possible, that the Orders made by Mr Justice Colton this morning will remain valid and not be set aside in the interim.

If the proposed appeal does proceed we understand that it will be robustly defended by Laura in order to vindicate the humane, carefully considered, and entirely lawful judgment of Mr Justice Colton.

Laura and Eunan deserve the right to marry in accordance with their beliefs just as much as any religious couple." 10

It appears that they still have the option to hold a Humanist-based wedding ceremony. However, it will have had no legal significance. They would also have to be married at registry office which alone would have been legally binding.

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References used:

The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.

  1. Image CC0 Public Domain. Downloaded from:
  2. "Humanism," Humanists UK, 2017, at:
  3. "Success! Couple win challenge to lack of legal recognition of humanist marriages in Northern Ireland," Humanists UK, 2017-JUN-09, at:
  4. "Human Rights and Equality," Humanists UK, 2017, at:
  5. "Humanist Weddings FAQ," Humanist Association of Ireland," 2016-NOV, Humanist Association of Ireland, at:
  6. Steve Chinn, "Humanist weddings: now Scotland's third most popular marriage ceremony," The Guardian, 2012-AUG-03, at:
  7. "Footballer and model's humanist wedding ruling to be appealed," Belfast Telegraph, 2-17-JUN-09, at:
  8. "Northern Ireland couple have hearing in humanist marriage court case," Humanists UK, at:
  9. Harriet Sherwood, "Model and Leeds United footballer win fight for humanist wedding," The Guardian, 2017-JUN-09, at:
  10. "Attorney General to appeal ruling granting legal recognition to humanist marriages in Northern Ireland," Humanists UK, 2017-JUN-09, at:
  11. "Atheist - Northern Ireland," Facebook group at: marriages in Northern Ireland," Humanists UK, 2017-JUN-09, at:

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Copyright Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Author: B.A. Robinson
Originally posted on: 2017-JUN-11

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