Bid for humanist wedding law change fails at Northern Ireland appeal court

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A model and international footballer who won the right to have a lawful humanist wedding in Northern Ireland have failed to secure a judicial declaration for a wider law change.

Appeal Court judges ruling in the case of Laura Lacole and Leeds United and Republic of Ireland star Eunan O’Kane found that a prohibition on humanist celebrants performing legally-binding ceremonies in the region would be discriminatory.

However, the three judges said a provision within the current law that enables couples to apply for temporary authorisation for a humanist celebrant to conduct 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.

Despite losing the substantive 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.

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 General Register Office (GRO) for Northern Ireland 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 pathway to have lawful humanist ceremonies.

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

Laura Lacole with her lawyer
Laura Lacole and her lawyer Ciaran Moynagh outside the court (PA)

“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.

Eunan O’Kane
Eunan O’Kane plays for Leeds United (PA)

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.

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