The Alberton Magistrates’ Court on Monday ordered a homophobic wedding venue to allow gay and lesbian couples to make use of its facilities and to pay a fine.

The venue was accused of having avoided renting out their facilities for the civil union celebrations of a lesbian couple, Francis and Liani Buitendag, by claiming that they were fully booked up.

The couple, who entered into a civil union in early 2011, first visited Sha-Mani, a privately-owned functions venue and conference centre in Alberton, on 23 May 2011, looking for a suitable venue to host a public wedding ceremony.

Francis fell in love with one of Sha-Mani’s venues. “I found Sha-Mani’s Stallenhof to be the perfectly romantic place to celebrate our love and commitment in the presence of friends and family,” she explained after the case.

However, when they tried to obtain a suitable date immediately after their visit, they came up against a wall of obstacles, with Sha-Mani staff indicating that the venue was not available.

At the same time, the Buitendags enlisted heterosexual friends to help them establish that there were indeed venues available on the relevant dates. They felt demeaned and approached the Equality Court.

They argued that Sha-Mani’s staff knew that they were a lesbian couple because they made no secret of their orientation, their love for one another, or their excitement about having found a suitable venue at which to hold their ‘wedding ceremony’, and that Sha-Mani on this basis refused to hire them the venue of their choice.

The Alberton Magistrates’ Court, sitting as an Equality Court, agreed and ordered Sha-Mani to pay R20 000 to OUT, an NGO in Pretoria working towards gay and lesbian well-being. Sha-mani was also ordered to allow gays and lesbians to hire any of Sha-Mani’s three venues for any purpose, including for weddings.

“We really hope this case will help others in the LGBTI community to realise they can stand up against unfair discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation or gender identity,” the couple said after the ruling.

The Buitendags brought their case in terms of the Promotion of Equality and Prevention of Unfair Discrimination Act. Under this Act, any person may bring a case of unfair discrimination by the State or a private person or institution (such as a holiday resort, bar, restaurant or hairdresser) to an equality court.

The couple were advised and represented by the Centre for Human Rights at the Faculty of Law, University of Pretoria.

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