Couple fail to secure law change for NI humanist weddings

Ruling welcomed by model married to footballer as it points to path to securing lawful unions

Humanists have welcomed a Belfast Appeal Court's ruling as paving the way for legally recognised marriages in Northern Ireland, despite losing an action aimed at having the North's 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.

However, Laura Lacole, who took the case with her husband, Leeds United and Republic of Ireland player Eunan O'Kane, insisted the judgment was a still positive for humanists, as judges had pointed to an alternative path to securing 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.

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

‘Step forward’

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.” - PA