Belfast Telegraph

Model and footballer wait for court ruling on humanist wedding bid

A model and international footballer seeking legal recognition of their looming humanist wedding face a tense wait for the court's judgment.

Pledging to make his decision as soon as possible, the judge hearing the challenge by Laura Lacole and Leeds and Republic of Ireland star Eunan O'Kane acknowledged their nuptials were less than a month away.

Mr Justice Colton reserved judgment at the end of a day long hearing at Belfast High Court.

"I bear in mind the imminency of the marriage and obviously all the parties would like a judgment before that," he said.

Under current law in Northern Ireland, Ms Lacole and Mr O'Kane's planned humanist wedding in Ballymena's luxury Galgorm Resort on June 22 will not be recognised in law. For such recognition they would need to have a separate civil ceremony.

A lawyer for the couple told the court they were being denied the same rights afforded to religious people.

Steven McQuitty said Northern Ireland offered more generous treatment to couples of faith.

While the model and footballer are asking for a one off relaxation of the law specific to their wedding, if successful they would set a legal precedent for other humanists seeking similar recognition.

"Religious people from Pagans to Free Presbyterians and everything in between enjoy a substantial legal privilege under law," said Mr McQuitty.

"In a sense the State gives its legal blessing to such marriages."

He claimed the law "denies the same privilege to equally valid groups".

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

Mr McQuitty told the court the case was of "huge public interest", highlighting that there were 4,290 humanist weddings in Scotland in 2015, more than those conducted by the Church of Scotland.

Ms Lacole, 27, from Belfast, and Mr O'Kane, 26, from Co Londonderry, have taken a case against the General Register Office for Northern Ireland and Stormont's Department of Finance.

Northern Ireland's Attorney General John Larkin also participated in the hearing because it touches on devolved Stormont legislation.

He opened his submission to the court by noting that the affidavits that supported the case of the applicant had been sworn on the bible.

"This litigation which, it's been suggested, is founded on non-theistic views of great seriousness, is founded on affidavits that are sworn," he said.

"Either they are emphatically sworn or the individuals who solemnly took the New Testament in their hands and executed those affidavits are really not that fixated on their views on such matters."

Mr Larkin insisted humanist elements could be incorporated into existing civil ceremony provisions.

"That blunts and weakens the case for a separate ceremony," he told the judge.

He said the applicant had failed to explain what exactly it was they wanted at their ceremony that could not be accommodated in a civil wedding.

"There is a marked paucity of concrete evidence in relation to that," he added.

Philip Henry, representing the General Register Office and Department of Finance, echoed Mr Larkin's assertion.

He said "vows, music, content and venue" could be modified in civil ceremonies, as long as it remained non-religious.

The barrister said the only issue was the couple were unable to have their chosen humanist celebrant to marry them legally.

Mr Henry said the important role religion has played in Northern Ireland through history was why such marriages had become enshrined in law.

"That is not a commentary on the quality of one belief over another," he said.

He made clear the character and motivation of Ms Lacole and Mr O'Kane was not in question, but said any relaxation of marriage laws could "open the door" for less well-intentioned cases in the future that could "commercialise" the institution.

"Where does one draw the line?" he asked.

The barrister added: "If you are looking to protect the dignity and status of marriage it has to be controlled. The less control you have over it the more likely you are to tarnish or devalue it."

He said there was "no prohibition" on humanist weddings, but acknowledged it would be an "inconvenience" to then have a separate civil ceremony.

"An inconvenience does not amount to unlawful interference," he said.

Arriving at court on Friday morning, Ms Lacole said: "We are both humanists so we want to have a wedding ceremony that reflects who we are as people.

"We can't see how you can differentiate between any types of beliefs. We think it should be recognised in Northern Ireland because there is a need for it.

"Whether we are a minority or a majority we should still be given equal rights."

She added: "We hope that we get a good verdict which means that we can have the wedding ceremony that we want to have.

"If we don't get it, we want to appeal so we can give other people the opportunity to have the wedding ceremony that they want."

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