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Marriage laws discriminatory and outdated, survey hears

14 January 2022

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COUPLES who have been married in ceremonies that are not legally binding, such as those conducted by faith groups not on licensed premises, have criticised current marriage laws as outdated and discriminatory against various religions.

Researchers studying the impact of the proposals for marriage-law reform, published by the Law Commission, spoke to couples who had married in ceremonies that were not legally binding, including Hindu rites, the Muslim nikah, and Christian, pagan, humanist, and Zoroastrian services.

Under the current law, in England and Wales, a civil wedding can be conducted only in a register office or on “approved premises”, often a hotel or stately home. There are special rules for Anglican, Jewish, and Quaker weddings. Other religious weddings can be conducted only in a registered place of worship, and must include words prescribed by statute. Any religious weddings that take place outside of these locations do not have legal force, and couples choosing a ceremony of this kind must also have a second, legal ceremony for their marriage to be legally binding.

In a small study of 170 participants, researchers from Warwick and Exeter Universities asked how the proposed reform of marriage laws might help couples.

Proposals for change include allowing weddings to take place outdoors (News, 31 December), on beaches, for example, in parks, and in private gardens and other buildings; providing a framework to allow non-religious belief organisations such as humanists and independent celebrants to conduct legally binding weddings; and allowing couples to use religious and non-religious ceremonies to mark their weddings.

Participants said that the current law did not treat all faiths equally, and was not respectful towards other religions and beliefs. The requirement for premises to be licensed was seen as particularly unfair and unnecessarily restrictive, as it stopped faith groups without registered places of worship from conducting legal weddings, or made others travel a long way to have a legal wedding.

Participants wanted the officiant rather than the place to be regulated.

The requirement to use a particular form of words in a wedding ceremony was also a problem: couples said that the language of the required wording was “intrusive” in a non-Anglican ceremony.

Others said that some of the preliminaries to a wedding were anachronistic. One Anglican clergyman described the reading of banns as “increasingly ridiculous”.

The study found a high level of support for the proposed changes.

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