Gender Equality Commission joins landmark NG Kerk gay unions case

Eleven members of the Dutch Reformed Church (DRC – also known as the NG Kerk) are taking the church to court to force it to change its decision to not allow the solemnisation of same-sex unions.

The matter, Gaum and others vs Dutch Reformed Church and others, is set to be heard on 21 August before the Pretoria High Court.

In November 2016, the DRC’s extraordinary general assembly shocked the LGBTI community when it voted to reverse a landmark October 2015 decision to allow individual church councils to recognise and bless same-sex relationships, and to drop the prohibition on non-celibate gay clergy.

The general assembly also stated that marriage is only possible between a man and woman and proclaimed that any sexual relationship outside of this form of marriage “does not meet Christian guidelines.”

The reversal was described at the time as “disappointing, disgusting, regressive and tragic” and one that kowtowed to the most conservative and homophobic elements of the DRC who were outraged by the progressive 2015 decision.

The eleven members of the church (known as the “NG Kerk-11”), including the Rev Laurie Gaum, are challenging the November 2016 decision in court and are calling for the 2015 decision to be reinstated. Represented by Adv Jeremy Gauntlett, they believe that the November 2016 decision was not procedural, was in contravention of the church’s own policies and is also unconstitutional.

“We’re confident enough procedural and constitutional grounds exist for us to be successful and for a reinstatement of the inclusive 2015 decision of the general assembly of the NG Kerk to take place,” Gaum told Mambaonline.

On 8 June, the Commission for Gender Equality applied to be admitted as a friend of the court (Amicus Curiae) in support of the eleven applicants in the case, which Gaum described as “uplifting news.”

The commission, however, takes a different approach to that of the NG Kerk-11, and instead questions the application of the Civil Union Act itself. It argues that churches do not have to seek registration in order to solemnise civil unions or marriages, but if they choose to do so under the Act, then they must act constitutionally and not discriminate against same-sex couples.

The Civil Union Act “cannot be allowed to give religious denominations or organisations seeking registration in respect of the solemnisation of civil unions the election whether or not to solemnise same-sex marriages under the Act,” the commission states in court documents.

It believes that if a church wish to legally register civil unions or marriages they should only be allowed to do so if they agree to treat same-sex couples equally. The commission further calls on the court to amend the Act so as to clearly disallow discrimination against same-sex couples.

An evangelical group, the Alliance for the Defence of the Autonomy of the Churches in South Africa, (ADACSA) has also asked to join as a friend of the court, but in support of the church.

It warns that an adverse finding against the DRC “could potentially mean that denominations, churches and religious organisations in South Africa could lose or be limited in their autonomy and be forced to adopt certain ‘politically correct’ doctrinal positions, even if such positions go directly against their religious convictions and beliefs.” The ADACSA adds: “This is a severe infringement of the constitutional right to religious freedom and the autonomy of the religious community as a whole.”

The commission counters, however, that “it would be a constitutionally repugnant interpretation of the Act that a religious denomination, professing for instance adherence to white Aryan supremacy, could seek to solemnise marriages only between adherents who are white.”

Earlier this week, we reported that the Rev Ecclesia de Lange dropped her seven-year legal battle to have the Methodist Church of South Africa reinstate her as a minister after it fired her in 2010 for marrying a woman. “We’re grateful for Ecclesia de Lange’s commitment this far and we intend to take it a next step forward,” commented Gaum on the news.

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