Belfast Telegraph

Battle for legal recognition of humanist marriages back in court

By Alan Erwin

Humanist celebrants are to make new requests for permission to conduct weddings in Northern Ireland as part of a potential resolution to a legal battle over alleged discrimination, the Court of Appeal has heard.

A bid to overturn a ruling that a glamour model and international footballer were treated unlawfully because of their belief system was put on hold to await the outcome of those applications.

Lord Chief Justice Sir Declan Morgan said he wanted to see how the General Register Office (GRO) deals with approaches made under a different section of the Northern Ireland Marriage Order.

Under current law a couple seeking such a humanist wedding must also have a separate civil registration for it to be officially acknowledged.

The same situation applies in England and Wales, but not in Scotland or the Republic of Ireland.

In June this year Belfast woman Laura Lacole won a landmark High Court challenge against the refusal to grant official status at the ceremony where she wed Republic of Ireland midfielder Eunan O'Kane.

A judge held the marriage was a manifestation of Ms Lacole's beliefs, and that she was denied equal treatment to that given to religious couples - a breach of her human rights.

He ordered the granting of temporary authorisation for a BHA celebrant to perform a legally valid and binding wedding.

Although Attorney General John Larkin QC and Stormont's Department of Finance appealed that verdict, the celebrity couple were given interim authority to go ahead with their humanist marriage.

The case was due to resume on Monday with arguments on the bid to reverse the High Court determination.

But Sir Declan, sitting in the Court of Appeal with Mr Justice O'Hara and Sir Ronnie Weatherup, raised a previously untested point with the parties.

Ms Lacole's original challenge was mounted after the GRO refused temporary authorisation for a British Humanist Association celebrant to perform the marriage in Northern Ireland under Article 14 of the Order, dealing with religious weddings.

Sir Declan suggested exploring applications made under Article 31 which grants authority for solemnising civil marriages.

"Is it the intention within the immediate future that an application is going to be\ made under Article 31, by someone of a humanist belief, so they can be celebrant at a marriage of people who share that belief?" he asked.

"From our point of view, we would like to see how the Register deals with it."

Following discussions, Karen Quinlivan QC, for Ms Lacole, confirmed those moves were planned by humanist representatives.

"My understanding is there will be some applications at least," she said.

Adjourning the appeal until later in the year, Sir Declan stressed proceedings will remain on hold until those requests are considered by the GRO.

Outside court Ms Lacole, who is also vice-chair of Atheist NI, expressed her wider hopes for others in the same situation.

She said: "We got the wedding we wanted, and we just want the same for all other humanist couples in Northern Ireland."

Her solicitor, Ciaran Moynagh, added that they will cooperate with all parties and the court to ensure equality is achieved.

Mr Moynagh said: "We accept engagement and discussion can be a very useful tool to achieve a resolution, so we will work with the Department on the issue of humanist marriages in Northern Ireland."

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