In what he’s described as the hardest 570 days of his life, a gay Christian minister is fighting back against the church that he says fired him because of his sexuality.
Philip Olivier, 36, was dismissed from his position of minister in the Afrikaanse Protestant Church (APC) of Groblersdal in Limpopo on 18 November 2014.
He claims that most of the charges against him were trumped up and “boil down to the fact that because I am gay I am not suitable to be a minister in the church”.
The APC first took action against Olivier after he appeared in a group photo taken at a social function hosted by Triarc, an LGBT insurance and medical aid company, posted on Facebook.
The church also accused him of working for the company, which Olivier denies, and for officiating a marriage without authority. He insists, however, that he took part in the ceremony with the church’s approval and that he did not formally solemnise the marriage.
In addition to suddenly finding himself without a job and with an outstanding student loan, he was also thrown out of his church accommodation. Without any other career to fall back on, he had to sell his possessions, lost his car and is facing growing debt and an uncertain future.
“Basically, after they fired me, they revoked my right to be a minister in any church. I went to other churches to get employment and I only had closed doors. I was blacklisted,” Olivier told Mambaonline. “So everything I studied for and my career has ended. It puts me back 11 years.”
He added: “To be a minister isn’t a job, it is a calling. When I was stripped of my title and position, I lost more than just a job. I lost a lifetime of dreams, my meaning in society was shaken and I lost a community of support.”
Olivier approached the CCMA with a claim of unfair dismissal, but attempts at meditation with the church failed.
“The CCMA commissioner said that the reason that he can pick up for me being fired was because I am gay and he changed [the case] to [one of] unfair discrimination. After that, the church said they wanted nothing to do with me,” Olivier claimed.
He then had 90 days to take the matter further in the Labour Court but after difficulties in sourcing funding and struggling with legal representation that period lapsed.
Now he’s secured the help of well known advocate Annamarie de Vos. They are approaching the Labour Court this Friday in a bid to have an extension granted that would allow them to continue with legal action against the APC.
Olivier wants the church to compensate him for his past and future financial loses and the emotional damage suffered at its hands.
“The total loses are great,” he said. “Being in an environment where you had high social standing [and then] to be being seen as nothing, where none of your friends or colleagues want to talk to you.”
He doubts the church would ever offer his job back. “The church is against gay people. The chances are zero. I won’t be able to be a minster ever again,” he said.
Olivier has asked the LGBT community and its allies to help him raise funds for his cause. The hearing on Friday is costing him R30,000 and he’ll need at least R50,000 more to continue the fight. If you’d like offer a donation, visit his website here.
While he hopes that the case will have the added benefit of forcing the church to change its policies, he has few illusions, noting that in the recent Ecclesia De Lange case the Constitutional Court chose not make such a ruling.
“I do hope that there can be a change in the church law. At the end of the day, you can’t go on being a church spreading the love of God and still have discrimination against a group of people that also needs the love and the message of the Bible.”
“But if we stop fighting these people [the church] they will carry on as they’ve carried on over the past 100 years,” he warned.
The picture that caused all the trouble. (Olivier is fifth from the left in the back row)
When asked for comment, the APC head office in Pretoria referred Mambaonline to Stefan Grobler from the church board in Groblersdal. He told us: “The matter is sub judice so it’s not in the interest of the church or Mr Olivier to give any comment at this stage.”
The issues of LGBT clergy and LGBT acceptance in churches in South Africa remain controversial and deeply divisive.
In November 2015, the Constitutional Court refused to rule on the discrimination case of lesbian minister Ecclesia De Lange, who was fired by the Methodist Church when she married her same-sex partner. The court said the issue was best resolved through arbitration.
The previous month, the Dutch Reformed Church (or NG Kerk) put its widely welcomed decision to recognise same-sex relationships and non-celibate gay ministers on hold until its next General Synod in 2018.