This article appears in the Witness section of the Autumn 2018 issue of the New Humanist. Subscribe today.

The act of getting married does not usually involve an extended court battle – but that is exactly what happened to Laura Lacole and Eunan O’Kane. The couple have spent two years fighting for the legal recognition of humanist marriage in Northern Ireland. At the time, the only options open to them were a religious or civil marriage. If they wanted to have a humanist ceremony, they would then have had to have a separate civil registration to make the wedding legal. The case went through a series of victories, appeals and losses.

In the latest ruling by the Court of Appeal, the couple won the right for their wedding to be recognised as lawful, but failed to secure a judicial declaration for a wider law change, after judges said that existing legislation meant it was not needed. The judges said that the current law allows couples to apply for temporary authorisation for a humanist celebrant to conduct marriages.

The couple, who were supported in their claim by Humanists UK and its local branch Nothern Ireland Humanists, see this as a victory. “Eunan and I are delighted that other couples should now be able to have legal recognition for their humanist marriages, just as we had for ours,” said Lacole. “We couldn’t continue allowing the law to give special privilege to religious beliefs. Despite the immense stress this undertaking has put us through, we know it was the right thing to do for not just us, but for Northern Ireland.”

Humanist marriages are already legally recognised in Scotland, but not in England and Wales. In Scotland, legal recognition was granted in 2005 and humanist marriages have risen in number from 85 in the first year to over 4,900 in 2015 – overtaking the Church of Scotland. In the Republic of Ireland, humanist marriages gained legal recognition in 2012. The attention of campaigning groups like Humanists UK will now turn to Westminster. In 2013, Parliament gave the government the power to legally recognise humanist marriages without the need for further legislation. The government has so far failed to act on this. But the recent ruling on Lacole and O’Kane’s case in Northern Ireland should make legal recognition of humanist weddings across the UK more likely.