Six couples have lost a landmark High Court challenge in the UK over the legal recognition of humanist marriages, despite a finding that they have faced discrimination.

The group had brought legal action against the Government over rules which mean humanist marriage ceremonies in England and Wales are currently not legally valid.

They argued that they are unlawfully discriminated against due to their beliefs.

In a ruling published today, Mrs Justice Eady said the "discrimination suffered by the claimants is real".

But she went on to say that the UK government has "demonstrated a legitimate aim in seeking to address differences in treatment" through an ongoing review of marriage laws, and dismissed the challenge.

Kate Harrison and Christopher Sanderson, from Lincolnshire, who were one of the six couples bringing the challenge, said: "We are delighted the judge agreed that the law as it stands does discriminate against those with humanist beliefs who wish to be legally married within a humanist ceremony.

"However, we are bitterly disappointed that she has elected not to find in our favour, opting instead to defer to the ongoing Law Commission review of marriage, itself already long delayed.

"For us, this means significant further uncertainty and delay until there could be a possibility that we'll be free to marry in the only way that would ever feel legitimate to us."

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In her judgment, Mrs Justice Eady said the "desired goal" of the six couples is "to be legally married via a distinctively humanist form of marriage" and "without the attendance of state officials at their weddings".

She found: "The discrimination suffered by the claimants is real: the difference of treatment they experience in seeking to manifest their humanist beliefs through the ceremony of marriage is a matter of substance, not merely one of form.

"The only question is whether that discriminatory treatment can be justified by the defendant's stated concern to address this as part of a wider reform of the law of marriage in this country, albeit there remains no certainty as to when that law may be changed so as to remove the adverse impact of which the claimants complain."

The senior judge noted that the Government had said it planned to review marriage laws, but did not want to reform the law in a "piecemeal fashion".

The Law Commission was asked to carry out a study exploring the issues that would need to be considered in 2015, and a review of laws on how and where people can legally marry in England was announced in June last year, the ruling says.

Mrs Justice Eady concluded: "The claimants' challenge is to the defendant's failure to extend legal recognition to humanist marriages. That failure has, however, to be seen in context.

"This is an area of social policy where a margin of judgment is properly to be allowed.

"Although that does not mean that taking no action would be justified, or that the balance might not shift over time, addressing the differences in treatment identified by the claimants would not be straightforward and this justifies the aim of considering the appropriate remedy as part of a more wholesale reform.

"Although I may deprecate the delay that has occurred since 2015, I cannot ignore the fact that there is currently an ongoing review of the law of marriage in this country that will necessarily engage with the wider concerns that have been raised.

"Given these circumstances, at this time, the defendant has demonstrated that a fair balance has been struck between the individual rights of the claimants and those of the broader community."

Humanism is a non-religious world view and those who follow it are agnostics or atheists.

Humanist weddings are non-religious ceremonies conducted by humanist officiants, and these ceremonies are legally recognised in both Scotland and Northern Ireland.

As humanist ceremonies are not currently recognised in law in England and Wales, couples with humanist beliefs must also have a civil ceremony.

The six couples were supported in their action by Humanists UK, which has been campaigning on the issue for some years.

In a statement, chief executive Andrew Copson said: "Thanks to this judgment, it is at least now not a matter of if humanist marriages will be legally recognised but when, and we await the Government's response to the judgment and their proposals to remedy the discrimination that has been identified by the court.

"We hope they will act quickly to give justice to the thousands of couples annually whose weddings are being denied legal recognition."