A Humanist story: civil celebrants

By | 15 Oct 2016

Photo of pro and anti-Proposition 8 protesters rally in front of San Francisco City Hall as California Supreme Court determines definition of marriageOnce upon a time, couples wanting to get married had two choices.  They could find a friendly clergyman willing to marry them in a church or go to a dreary registry office.  Because of established cultural traditions and family expectations, most couples choose a church wedding, whether they were religious or not.

However, in 1973 another choice became available, when the civil celebrant program was put in place.  It meant couples could get married on a beach or in a garden.  This felicitous change is a Humanist story.

Who was responsible and how did this change come about?

The man responsible was Lionel Murphy (1922–1986), when he was Attorney-General in the Whitlam government from 1972 to 1975.  From 1975 until his untimely death in 1986, he was a High Court judge.

Born near Sydney, the sixth of seven children in an Irish Catholic family, he attended state schools because his family was estranged from the church.  Being an able student gave him entry to the University of Sydney, where he completed a science degree.  Then, as part of the WWII home front effort, he worked as an organic chemist.  After the war, Lionel obtained a Commonwealth scholarship and studied law.  He passed with honours and was admitted to the bar in 1947.  After practising as a barrister for some years, he was elected to the federal parliament in 1961 as a Labor Senator for NSW.

In 1972, Senator Lionel Murphy was appointed Attorney-General in the newly elected Whitlam government.  In his short term as Attorney-General, Murphy was responsible for many modernising landmark changes, including divorce law reform with ‘no fault’ divorces, trade practices, legal aid, racial discrimination changes and the civil celebrant program.

From his personal experiences of registry offices, Lionel knew they were dismal locations for a wedding.  He thought it most unfair that divorcees and non-religious people were often obliged to go to a registry office.  This meant they were forced to get married on a weekday, in registry 9 to 5 office hours and in unattractive surroundings.

To redress the existing restrictions on places deemed suitable for a marriage ceremony, in August 1973 Lionel as Attorney-General drew up a memo putting in place a civil celebrant program.  Civil celebrants were to be given the legal right to marry couples, a right previously only given to clergy and select others, such as registry office officials. With the civil celebrants authorised to handle the legal aspects of a marriage contract, those getting married were free to choose a location, hence weddings in gardens and on the beach.

Lionel was involved in the appointment of the first batch of celebrants and took a great interest in the weddings they performed.  His interest extended to sending congratulatory telegrams to the first few hundred celebrant-wedded couples.

Right from the initiation of the program, Humanists were among some of the early celebrant appointments. In recognition of the many humanising actions Lionel Murphy was responsible for, both as Attorney-General and as a High Court Judge, Australian Humanists appointed him the first Australian Humanist of the Year in 1983.

Although later Attorneys-General have sometimes acted in ways that have devalued the original intent of Murphy’s civil celebrant program, the popularity of the civil celebrant marriages is now 74.1%.

Note: Lionel Murphy made an enormous contribution in legislation and High Court rulings that expanded equality and justice for many.  He was, however, a controversial figure, admired and vilified by those on different sides of the political spectrum. For an account of his life, try Lionel Murphy: A Political Biography by Jenny Hocking (1997).

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Copyright © 2016 Rosslyn Ives