S African court rules against church’s reversion to homophobia

S African court rules against church’s reversion to homophobia March 24, 2019

THE authorities in South Africa have been trying for some time to crack down on unscrupulous ministers and churches who prey on the gullible by providing ‘miracles’ for cash.

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But according to Pierre De Vos, above, who teaches Constitutional law at the University of Cape Town Law:

The harm inflicted by some churches and other religious institutions against women and gays and lesbians is seldom mentioned when the possibility of regulating such institutions is raised.

But this could now change, thanks to a “stunning” High Court ruling against the Dutch Reformed Church, once referred to by many as the “Much Deformed Church” and ‘the National Party at Prayer” because of its unwavering support during South Africa’s apartheid era for the separation of races, and the vicious methods used to enforce such divisions. In the 1980s the church was expelled from the World Alliance of Reformed Churches for its support of apartheid.

Earlier this month the High Court in Pretoria ordered the church (also known as the NG Kerk) to stop discriminating against same-sex couples and gay clergy.

It ruled that the Dutch Reformed Church (DRC) must end its November 2016 policy that reversed a landmark October 2015 decision to let individual church councils recognise and bless same-sex relationships and to allow non-celibate gay clergy.

Image via Hartford Seminary

Eleven members of the church, including the Rev Laurie Gaum, above, took the matter to court, not only arguing that the November 2016 decision was unprocedural and in contravention of the church’s own policies but was also unconstitutional.

A full bench of the court agreed on both counts, most significantly asserting that the church’s discrimination against LGBT communities was unconstitutional.

The decision could have major consequences for churches that continue to exclude and reject sexual and gender minorities.

The judges found that the DRC’s 2016 decision inherently diminished the applicants’ dignity:

Because same-sex relationships are tainted as being unworthy of mainstream church ceremonies, and persons in same-sex relationships cannot be a minister of the church.

The DRC had argued that as a religious institution it is protected by religious freedom and has the right to make its own rules and follow its own doctrine. It admitted its policy was discriminatory, but claimed it was not unfairly so.

An elated Gaum said:

We had a good day in court and justice has been done. Our request on constitutional grounds has also been granted which has implications for all other denominations and religions, so it’s quite amazing.

Gaum said the court had confirmed that the church’s actions did not affirm human dignity and have been discriminatory, violating the constitutional provision which prohibits sexual orientation discrimination.

The ruling means that ministers in the DRC will now be able to bless same-sex weddings if allowed to do so by their church councils. Those in same-sex relationships can also no longer be excluded from becoming ministers in the church.

Gaum acknowledged that the DRC could still appeal the matter, possibly all the way to the Constitutional Court, adding:

We hope the church will be wise enough to not go that route but at the moment we don’t know.

He believes that the DRC’s regressive position has been a terrible mistake.

It’s tragic. You know, the best of religion is supposed to not discriminate, especially in the Christian gospel. Non-discrimination is supposed to be one of the central tenets but, of course, it depends from what angle you’re looking at it.

Gaum remains hopeful that the ruling will see the DRC becoming fully inclusive.

This is a great step. Of course there could be a backlash in the process. But for the moment we are celebrating.

De Vos believes the court made the “correct” decision.

The decision of the church in 2016 to revert to its previous position which required all dominees to discriminate against gays and lesbians … was a decision sparked by political pressure, albeit pressure applied by individuals who motivated their views on religious grounds. It is therefore not surprising that the court held that there was no pressing religious purpose to justify the discrimination against gays and lesbians.

In its judgment, the court said:

The sting of the past and continuing discrimination against both gays and lesbians lies in the message it conveys, namely, that viewed as individuals or in their same-sex relationships, they do not have the inherent dignity and are not worthy of the human respect possessed by and accorded to heterosexuals and their relationships.

This denies to gays and lesbians that which is foundational to our Constitution and the concepts of equality and dignity, namely that all persons have the same inherent worth and dignity, whatever their other differences may be.

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