Rejected by Beloftebos: Sasha-Lee Heekes and Megan Watling on their engagement day
The furore surrounding the Beloftebos wedding venue’s refusal to allow same-sex couples shows no signs of abating and is now making international headlines.
On Tuesday, CNN ran an article about the scandal that draws attention to the phenomenon of business owners who believe they are entitled, based on religious freedom, to turn away same-sex couples.
The piece about the venue, located in the town of Stanford, puts an uncomfortable international spotlight on the Western Cape, which is widely promoted as an LGBTQ friendly destination.
In a statement, the Stanford Association of Tourism & Business (ST&B) said it “deeply regrets the situation which has arisen resulting from a same-sex couple seeking to marry at a local wedding venue.”
The association continued: “We would like to reiterate our standpoint that we are governed not only by the ST&B constitution but also by that of our country, South Africa, and we do not support any form of discrimination. We continue to welcome all visitors to our beautiful village and region.”
The latest incident of homophobia at Beloftebos concerns same-sex couple Sasha-Lee Heekes, 24, and Megan Watling, 25. After getting engaged in December, they enquired about hiring the venue to host their wedding in April 2021.
The owner, Coia de Villiers, replied that “based on our personal beliefs, we do not host weddings between couples of the same gender.” The venue previously made local news in 2017 when it rejected another same-sex couple that year.
Beloftebos is being represented in the media by Michael Swain, the Executive Director of Freedom of Religion South Africa (FORSA), a conservative religious group that lobbies against LGBTQ equality.
Swain told CNN that, “LGBT rights do not trump religious rights under South Africa’s constitution. The owners don’t just rent out the venue, they are also actively involved in the arrangement, which they are simply saying they do not believe they can do in good conscience.”
“Your religion does not give you the right to discriminate”
Legal and constitutional experts disagree. Pierre de Vos, a well-known constitutional law professor, wrote on Twitter that Beloftebos is “breaking the law with the support of Freedom of Religion SA.”
The Love Not Hate project condemned Beloftebos’ “blatantly discriminatory policy” in a statement and said it not only violated the Promotion of Equality and Prevention of Unfair Discrimination Act but also South Africa’s constitutional values.
“While people are entitled to practice their religious beliefs, they cannot use these beliefs to infringe upon another persons’ fundamental rights by turning away members of certain groups protected by the Bill of Rights when providing a public service,” argued the campaign.
It explained that Heekes and Watling are not asking the venue’s owners to agree with their marriage or to personally marry them “but simply to provide their venue as a place where they can celebrate their love and commitment, as offered to all other couples.”
Adv Andre Gaum, a commissioner for the SA Human Rights Commission (SAHRC), confirmed to 702 that the venue is being investigated after Heekes and Megan Watling filed a complaint with the SAHRC.
“Beloftebos is not acting constitutionally and therefore we will also take up this particular matter,” he said. “We had a previous complaint of a gay couple at Beloftebos some time ago and we are finalising our papers.”
Gaum added: “We believe that one cannot, on the basis of your religious beliefs, trample on other rights. Especially the right to equality, human dignity and so on.”
The Democratic Alliance (DA) shadow minister of communications and digital technologies, Phumzile Van Damme, slammed Beloftebos for their discriminatory practices and called for a boycott of the venue,
“If this had been a refusal to marry on the grounds of race, imagine the anger?” she tweeted. “Because it is the LGBTIA+ community, some are defending this? Your religion does not give you the right to discriminate. If you are planning to get married at Beloftebos, stand in solidarity & cancel.”
Around 2,000 people have so far signed a petition demanding that the SAHRC take action against Beloftebos.