MPS overwhelmingly back move to amend discriminatory Civil Union Act

Activists with MP Deidre Carter at the hearing

A Bill to amend the Civil Union Act so that Home Affairs marriage officers can no longer opt out of marrying same-sex couples is a step closer to becoming law.

On Wednesday, COPE MP Deidre Carter presented the reasoning behind her Private Members Bill to amend the Civil Union Act to the Portfolio Committee on Home Affairs in Parliament.

The Bill aims to remove Section 6 of the Act, which allows Home Affairs marriage officers to refuse to marry same-sex couples on the grounds of their “conscience, religion [or] belief”.

Carter told MPs that she’d received numerous complaints that same-sex couples had humiliatingly been turned away from Home Affairs offices as there were no marriage officers willing to solemnise their marriages. The Department of Home Affairs has confirmed that a large number of officers have opted out of marrying same-sex couples and that many branches do not offer the service at all.

Carter pointed out that marriage officers, as civil servants, are not entitled to opt out of marrying any other people (such as on the basis of race, religion or culture), with sexual orientation being the only exception. “Section 6 of the Civil Union Act limits the right of same-sex partners to enter into a civil union, and… this limitation cannot be justified in an open and democratic society,” she told MPs.

“This matter to me is of such importance that I honestly feel that we should not make it a political football, but is in the interests of a very large part of our society,” she said. The presentation followed a recent call for submissions from the public on the Bill. (Of the 101 submissions, 87 were in favour.)

The response from the committee was unanimous and in support of the Bill. MPs from the DA, ANC, EFF and IFP as well as a Home Affairs representative all backed the proposal, and Carter was congratulated for her work. “We have no option but to agree,” Donald Gumede from the ANC said, while the EFF’s Hlengiwe Mkalipi added: “We have no choice. It is our duty as the committee.”

The DA’s Haniff Hoosen said that if even one person was discriminated against by the Civil Union Act, “we must change this bill.” Committee Chairperson Hlomane Chauke (ANC) pointed out that same-sex couples want to marry each other, not their marriage officers, “so your personal opinions should not come into play.”

“What happened today was so positive, I did not expect everyone to support it,” a delighted Carter told Mambaonline. She noted that, “the ACDP (African Christian Democratic Party) wasn’t there, and we know that they are against this.”

At the presentation, Home Affairs officials indicated that there should also be a review as to whether there is a need for both the Civil Union Act and the Marriage Act. The Marriage Act remains available only for opposite-sex couples while the Civil Union Act allows for civil unions and marriages inclusive of same-sex couples.

Carter agrees: “Personally, I hold the view that to have two acts that cover marriages (one for heterosexual and the other for same-sex couples) in the form of the Marriage Act and the Civil Union Act is undesirable and that this matter should be addressed in the long term.”

She believes that in the interim, it is imperative that the discriminatory Section 6 urgently be removed from the Civil Union Act. “Lets get Section 6 removed and after that we can have a fight to say that we don’t actually need a Civil Union Act; what we need is only one [inclusive] Marriage Act. Let’s take one bite of the elephant at a time.”

Matthew Clayton, Research, Advocacy and Policy Manager at Triangle Project was one of the LGBTQ activists at the presentation. He told Mambaonline that Carter’s Bill is an “important piece of legislation”.

“Ms Carter’s presentation highlights the very real challenges being faced by same-sex couples who are merely trying to access services from their government and are being denied and embarrassed,” he said.

“We congratulate Deidre Carter and the Congress of the People for having the vision and courage to finally tackle the broken Civil Union Act. We are also very encouraged by the warm words of support from MPs from the ANC, DA, EFF and IFP in today’s sitting. While some of the issues in this Bill seem complicated, the actual goal is very simple: same-sex couples should not have to negotiate with Home Affairs for their right to equality, they need to be able to access services the same as a different-sex couple,” asserted Clayton.

The next step in the process is the formation of a steering committee, consisting of Carter, members of the Home Affairs Committee and department officials, which will then make recommendations on the way forward. This may or may not include public hearings on the matter.

Carter believes that a speedy process to introduce the Bill for a vote in Parliament is possible. “With the support and commitment of the members of the Committee and the co-operation of the Department, I am confident that Section 6 of the Civil Union Act will be expunged before the end of the term of this the fifth democratic Parliament of the Republic of South Africa.”

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