Turned away by Beloftebos: Sasha-Lee Heekes and Megan Watling on their engagement day
The same-sex couple who were turned away by the Beloftebos wedding venue in January have filed court papers against the Christian owners, demanding not only an apology but also R2 million in damages to be given to a charity.
The owners, Coia and Andries de Villiers, refuse to host same-sex weddings at their venue in the Western Cape village of Stanford because their “Biblical conviction is that marriage is reserved for a life-long commitment between one man and one woman.”
Megan Watling and Sasha-Lee Heekes lodged their application in the Equality Division of the Western Cape High Court on Wednesday. They have asked the court to be allowed to intervene in the case originally filed by the SA Human Rights Commission in March against Beloftebos for discrimination.
“The question in this matter is … whether a business that offers services to the public at large may choose to refuse to provide those services to a same-sex couple solely on the basis of its religious belief. We respectfully submit that it not…” say the couple.
The women have been in a romantic relationship since 2013, “are in love and committed to a life together” and say they were humiliated and shocked by the venue’s denial of service which “soured” their wedding plans.
They have called on the court to rule that the venue’s refusal to provide them wedding services on the basis of their sex, gender or sexual orientation “constitutes unfair discrimination and is unconstitutional and unlawful.”
These services include the hire and decoration of a wedding venue for a wedding or reception, wedding day coordination, wedding planning, flower arranging, and cantering. The women note that these are all secular services and do not impact on the owners’ faith.
“We did not require Beloftebos or any of its staff to officiate the wedding or to play any part in it other than as a service provider,” argue Watling and Heekes “They may continue to worship or express their faith freely. But when they enter the public marketplace and offer secular services, they must do so on a basis that does not unfairly discriminate.”
They further point out that venue is prepared to host weddings that are not Christian, such as Jewish and Muslim weddings, and has thus “singled out same-sex weddings as being contrary to their Christian beliefs and refused to host only those weddings.”
Heekes writes that the venue’s rejection “was in effect a public statement that Megan and I should be ostracised and excluded from normal society, and that our relationship should not be honoured or respected, but rather that it should be deplored.”
“Discrimination, even when premised on genuine and sincerely held beliefs, is still discrimination.”
Significantly, the couple want the court to declare that expressions of religious beliefs as a basis on which to refuse to associate with or conduct business with a same-sex couple “constitute hate speech and discrimination” according to the Promotion of Equality and Prevention of Unfair Discrimination Act (PEPUDA or the Equality Act).
The women have further demanded that the owners provide them with an “unconditional apology in which they recognise the unconstitutional basis of their business practices and the harm that they have caused…”
With regard to damages, the couple have asked the court to order the de Villiers’ to pay R2 million in damages for “impairment of dignity, pain and suffering as a result of the unfair discrimination,” which they will donate to a charity of their choice.
Heekes and Watling approached Beloftebos as a possible venue for their wedding after getting engaged in December 2019. They were told that “based on our personal beliefs, we do not host weddings between couples of the same gender.”
The venue previously rejected another same-sex couple, Alexandra Thorne and Alex Lu, in 2017. The SAHRC’s case against Beloftebos is primarily centred on Thorne and Lu’s three-year-old incident and only alludes to the one involving Heekes and Watling.
The de Villiers are, in turn, defending their right to discriminate through a counter-application on the SAHRC and other parties in which they have asked the court to allow them to continue to turn away same-sex couples and to declare the relevant section of PEPUDA “unconstitutionally invalid.” The venue owners claim that their right to freedom of religion will be violated if they are forced to serve same-sex couples.
Heekes says, however: “The issue at hand is not whether Christians believe that marriage should be between one man and one woman. I accept that this is the belief of the respondents. The issue is whether Beloftebos may lawfully discriminate against same-sex couples when it provides services to the public at large. Discrimination, even when premised on genuine and sincerely held beliefs, is still discrimination.”
The application filed by Heekes and Watling, which can be downloaded here (PDF 5MB), includes a comprehensive and compelling argument against religious-based discrimination. It also elegantly refutes claims that the couple are attempting to impose on the Beloftebos owner’s religious freedom.