One might have thought that there were two ways of going about getting married. If you regard marriage as a union strengthened by a God-given or other external, spiritual bond, you go for a religious ceremony. If you can’t be bothered with that, or are irreligious, or think in a London N1 sort-of-way that marriage is just a union of two beings endowed with a comforting cloud of human dignity, the State rightly gives you another option. You can have a civil marriage: human, dignified but not spiritual. Happy with that logical distinction?
Not so in the bitter, twisted, “me, me” world of human rights aficionados, as showed by an episode in Northern Ireland a few days ago. The protagonists were an engaged power couple: he an Irish football international, she a Belfast glamour model. Perhaps unsurprisingly they didn’t do religion, believing that spiritual experience started and finished with being human. They were exactly the people, in other words, that a civil wedding was intended for. But that simply wasn’t good enough for them. What this petulant pair wanted was a religious humanist (i.e. non-religious) wedding. They duly demanded of a bemused registrar that he exercise his power under the religious marriages provisions of the law to license a British Humanist Association wedding celebrant (don’t ask – the mind boggles) to do the job. The registrar understandably declined this childish and nonsensical request, as the law required.
Hey ho, hey ho … it’s off to court we go. Last Friday the couple won. Why? You’ve got it: human rights. Telling an irreligious couple that the State wouldn’t set them up with an official religious marriage ceremony presided over by a formal denier of religion infringed their human right under Article 9 of the European Convention to manifest their religion or belief. (By all means read the last sentence again: it won’t make any more sense the second time). True it was that no-one was stopping these people from holding, proclaiming or exercising their humanist beliefs until they were blue in the face; true also that in a civil ceremony it was perfectly possible to add, within reason, whatever humanist mumbo-jumbo they wanted. True indeed also that the State didn’t have to recognise religious marriages at all. The fact remained that by denying deniers of religion the same rights as religious couples to a religious ceremony they were being denied the right to manifest their (non) religion; in so far as the law denied this, it had to be re-written. The Northern Ireland Attorney General has appealed, showing the same moral courage as when he appealed a previous ruling, which suggested that there was a human right to certain kinds of abortion – see here).
Of course the judge’s interpretation may turn out to have been correct, at least in the curious looking-glass world that is the convoluted jurisprudence of the European Convention on Human Rights. But that’s not the point. For anyone who isn’t a human rights lawyer, what we are seeing is the perversion of human rights law away from covering serious wrongs to protecting utterly trivial desires, in this case a preference for a humanist ceremony instead of a virtually identical civil ceremony with humanist words superadded. With cases like this, whatever respect the European Convention ever had from ordinary people, except among those who make money out of it and their willing dupes, will vanish like a will-o-the-wisp. Unfortunately, since the events of June 8 it’s likely to get ever more difficult for us to withdraw the UK from the tentacles of this pernicious institution. But I suppose one can always hope.