Humanists hail court ruling as paving way for legal marriages in Northern Ireland

Humanists have hailed an Appeal Court ruling as paving the way for legally recognised marriages in Northern Ireland, despite losing a bid to have the current law declared in breach of human rights.

A model and international footballer, who won the right to have a lawful humanist wedding in Northern Ireland last year, failed on Thursday to uphold a judicial declaration that the existing prohibition is incompatible with human rights legislation.

But Laura Lacole (pictured), who took the case with her husband, Leeds United and Republic of Ireland star Eunan O’Kane, insisted the judgment was a still positive for humanists, as judges had pointed to an alternative path to secure lawful unions.

The three Appeal Court judges found that a prohibition on humanist celebrants performing legally-binding ceremonies in the region would be discriminatory.

However, they stopped short of declaring the law incompatible with human rights, explaining that an existing provision enabling couples to apply for temporary authorisation for celebrants to conduct humanist marriages “provides a basis for avoiding such discrimination”.

As such, the court in Belfast said the definition of legal marriages did not need to be expanded to incorporate specific “beliefs” such as humanist.

But they indicated the General Register Office (GRO) for Northern Ireland should now look favourably on future applications for temporary authorisations.

Despite technically losing the case, Ms Lacole welcomed that finding as a “step forward”, insisting a precedent had been set for couples to have legally recognised humanist weddings in the region.

“It’s a temporary fix,” she said.

In the couple’s original High Court victory last year, the trial judge had ruled that the law should be altered to include the term “or beliefs” among definitions of religious ceremonies.

An appeal by Northern Ireland’s Attorney General John Larkin and Stormont’s Department of Finance and the GRO was allowed by the Appeal Court judges on Thursday.

The case originally went to court because Ms Lacole and Mr O’Kane were refused temporary authorisation from the GRO when they applied. They won the right to have their ceremony legally recognised. The granting of that authorisation was not appealed against.

Ms Lacole said while the law would not be changed, the consequences of the Appeal Court ruling meant couples now had a clear legal pathway to have lawful humanist ceremonies.

“I am really happy,” she said outside the Court of Appeal in Belfast.

“The fact we are now walking away having the door be opened for the non-religious in Northern Ireland to have a humanist ceremony befitting of their beliefs is amazing.

“So other people can ultimately have the wedding we had, and that was the goal – so we are really happy.”

Mr O’Kane was not in court for the short hearing on Thursday morning.

The couple’s lawyer Ciaran Moynagh also drew positives from the judgment.

“Essentially it does open the door today that humanist ceremonies will be recognised in Northern Ireland,” he said.

“The initial ask was that ‘belief’ was read into the legislation or the legislation was declared incompatible and that would have made the Government seriously consider the marriage law and look at rewriting it or changing provisions in it.

“Today we did not get that declaration of incompatibility or ‘read in’, we got an alternative saying there is a solution already in the existing law and you should use that.”

He said it would now be difficult for the GRO to reject future applications for temporary authorisation, given the Appeal Court ruling that a prohibition on legally recognised humanist ceremonies would be discriminatory.

“If the Government decided to have a blanket ‘no’ on the temporary authorisation then this matter could quickly come back to court,” he added.

Humanism is a non-religious belief system that rejects the concepts of a higher deity or afterlife.

Humanists adhere to a scientific view of the world and believe humans steer their own destiny.

Humanist marriages are already legally recognised in Scotland, but not in England and Wales. They are also recognised in the Republic of Ireland.

Andrew Copson, chief executive of Humanists UK, said:

“We are delighted at the outcome of this hearing, which will enable thousands of couples to get married in a way that is personal and meaningful to them.

“Laura and Eunan have fought bravely for what is simply a matter of fairness, and their efforts in succeeding must be highly commended.”

Copyright (c) Press Association Ltd. 2018, All Rights Reserved. Picture (c) David Young / PA Wire.