Belfast Telegraph

Humanist marriages could be legally recognised in Northern Ireland following court ruling

Laura Lacole with her footballer beau Eunan O'Kane
Laura Lacole with her footballer beau Eunan O'Kane

By Alan Erwin

Senior judges have paved the way for enabling legally recognised humanist marriages in Northern Ireland, it was claimed today.

The Court of Appeal identified a legislative route for couples to avoid potential discrimination through the appointment of a celebrant who shares their beliefs.

Belfast model Laura Lacole, who wed Republic of Ireland international footballer partner Eunan O'Kane following a previous legal battle, insisted the verdict will allow other humanists to have the ceremony they want.

She said: "This outcome is a massive positive - hopefully now it will not just be Eunan and I that can have a legally recognised humanist marriage."

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 last year Belfast woman Ms Lacole won her High Court challenge to the refusal to grant official status for her wedding ceremony.

She had issued judicial review proceedings against the General Register Office (GRO) for not authorising the marriage to be overseen by British Humanist Association celebrant Isobel Russo.

A judge held the marriage was a manifestation of the model'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 humanist celebrant to oversee a legally binding wedding.

It meant Ms Lacole and Mr O'Kane, a midfielder who plays for Leeds United, were able get married at a ceremony in Co Antrim.

However, Attorney General John Larkin QC and the Department of Finance appealed the verdict and its wider implications.

According to Mr Larkin humanist couples will suffer no discrimination under current legislative arrangements.

He argued that the 2003 Marriage Order includes provisions for the solemnisation of civil marriage - ensuring no breach of the European Convention on Human Rights.

Delivering judgment today, Lord Chief Justice Sir Declan Morgan allowed the appeal by setting aside the declaration of incompatibility with human rights legislation.

The court also refused to have reference to a "belief" read into a section of the Order which refers to "religious body".

Sir Declan pointed out that it is the Registrar General's responsibility to avoid discrimination in relation to a marriage celebrant's background.

"If the Registrar General is satisfied that a couple want a humanist celebrant to officiate at their marriage or civil partnership in order to express their humanist beliefs he should accommodate that request if content that the proposed celebrant will carry out the solemnisation of the marriage according to law," the judge said.

"Whether or not the authorisation should be for a single marriage or a period of time is a matter for the judgement of the Registrar General exercised lawfully."

The court accepted the statutory prohibition of a humanist celebrant solemnising Ms Lacole's marriage would have constituted discrimination under human rights law.

Crucially, however, it considered that Article 31 of the 2003 Order provides a basis for avoiding such discrimination by enabling the appointment of Ms Russo without having to utilise an interpretive tool within the Human Rights Act.

Outside court Ms Lacole's solicitor, Ciaran Moynagh, claimed the outcome means the authorities must now consider applications from humanist celebrants to conduct legally recognised ceremonies.

He said: "The court has found an existing provision that enables such applications and allows the government to act impartially.

"They can't just have a blanket policy of refusal."

Belfast Telegraph Digital


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