Ecclesia de Lange
The potentially ground-breaking case in which a lesbian minister has taken legal action against the Methodist Church of South Africa (MCSA) for firing her was heard by the Constitutional Court on Friday.
Ecclesia de Lange was dismissed by the church in January 2010 after she announced to her Western Cape congregation that she would be marrying her same-sex partner at the time.
Representing de Lange, Advocate Anna-Marie de Vos told the court that the church “acted unconstitutionally, unlawfully and unfairly” in firing the minister.
“The right of freedom of religion does not automatically give the church the right to discriminate unfairly,” she said.
De Vos argued against sending the case back to arbitration, and insisted that the court was the correct platform to address the issue because “it’s a constitutional matter”.
De Lange abandoned an earlier arbitration process, saying she had lost faith in its fairness.
The MCSA argued that the case fell under the Equality Act and should instead be heard by the Equality Court; possibly an attempt to limit the ramifications of a Constitutional Court decision.
It also claimed that marriage is a religious institution and that “the rules of marriage were made by God and not men”.
Wim Trengove, the church’s legal counsel, said that its ministers must subscribe to the fundamental tenets of the church, including that “marriage is an institution between one man and one woman.”
De Lange and supporters at the Constitutional Court on Friday (Pic: Inclusive and Affirming Ministries)
While Trengove said that same-sex marriage is strictly not allowed in the Church, De Vos claims that, “On our reading on the rules and disciplines of the church, there is no explicit rule prohibiting [De Lange] from getting married.”
After hearing arguments, the court reserved judgement. It is not clear when it will announce its decision.
Laurie Gaum, from the Centre for Christian Spirituality and the Queer Christian Leaders Front, attended Monday’s Constitutional Court hearing.
“We were impressed with the whole feeling of things; the openness of the court and the justices and how they engaged with the subject,” he told Mambaonline.
Noting that the case could have implications across denominational lines, he added: “We have a lot of confidence in the Constitutional Court system. We are hoping for a good outcome.”
The justices could decide to send the case back to arbitration or could make a ruling on the matter, which may have major repercussions on LGBT equality in South Africa. In a ruling, the court could confirm that religious belief is not a basis on which to discriminate against gays and lesbians, or otherwise possibly agree that this is allowed in certain cases.