The Gauteng High Court in Pretoria, South Africa, has just handed down a decision compelling the Dutch Reformed Church (DRC) to recognize same-sex marriages and to ordain gay clergy.
“The church by all means as a religious institution is supposed to embody what the gospel, the good news, is supposed to be all about and that is to be about indiscriminatory [sic] practices and therefore equality for all,” said Laurie Gaum, a gay rights activist and theologian in an interview following the decision.
What Has Led to This Decision?
Same-sex marriage has been legal in South Africa since 2006, and in 2015, the Dutch Reformed Church decided to permit same-sex marriage as well, saying that individual churches could decide whether or not they wanted to conduct such ceremonies. The church also decided to allow the ordination of gay clergy. However, in 2016 the church changed its position and decided no longer to allow same-sex marriages or the ordination of LGBT clergy who are not celibate.
After the church changed its stance the second time, Laurie Gaum and several others filed legal papers challenging that decision. Gaum argued that God welcomes people of any sexual orientation and that many members of the DRC hold this belief. Gaum also said that the way the church went about coming to its 2016 decision was problematic and that the DRC was infringing on the religious rights of its members. In addition to being unconstitutional, Gaum believes that putting such restrictions on gay members causes “severe emotional and spiritual harm, culminating in deep human suffering.”
The church, on the other hand, has argued that the traditional position against same-sex marriage is the viewpoint that the majority of its members hold and that its 2016 decision was the result of careful deliberation over what the Bible says. According to the church, “This goes to the core of the religious belief system of the church and it is not a matter with which a court should get entangled.”
Schalk Burger, advocating on behalf of the DRC, said that the church’s position is not unconstitutional because it does not prohibit same-sex marriage for everyone, but only for those within the church. He said, “I would like to submit that there is no unfair discrimination. As I understand the Constitution there is room for the church to follow its own doctrine.”
It is not yet known whether the DRC will appeal the court’s decision. Speaking on behalf of the church, the DRC’s General Secretary, Gustav Claassen said, “Our current position is that of 2016…we will scrutinize the judgment, and we’ll come back and we will comment on it.”
Gaum says he hopes that instead of appealing the decision, the church will “use this as an opportunity to go back to the drawing board and to take their own stance under consideration, you know, and the damage that they’ve done, the pain that they’ve caused.”
In their coverage on the ruling, reporters for SABC News speculated that the court’s decision has implications for other South African denominations that also ban same-sex marriage and that this matter could very well go to a higher court at some point.