The National Assembly on Thursday finally passed the CivilUnion Amendment Bill which will make it illegal for marriage officers working for the State to refuse to marry same-sex couples. It will now go to theNational Council of Provinces for ratification. Some objections were raised to the fact that the Department of Home Affairs has been granted a 24-month transitional period for training. Nevertheless, this is a victory for LGBT pressure groups and media, as well as the community as a whole, who have also been objecting to this discriminatory exclusion since the original law was passed.
The Civil Union Amendment Bill, which seeks to repeal section 6 of the act allowing marriage officers to opt out of marrying same-sex couples on the basis of”conscience, religion and belief”, was passed with the support of most parties. Predictably, the African Christian Democratic Party (ACDP), theNational Freedom Party (NFP) and the African Independent Congress (AIC) objected to the bill.
Congress of the People (COPE) MP Deidre Carter, who sponsored the bill said: “It cannot be in our Constitutional democracy that civil servants can be afforded the right in law about whom they would like to serve.”
COPEPresident Mosioua Lekota told the House that the amendment went beyond the mere repeal of section 6 of the principal act: “It touches upon the genesis of our constitutional order. It touches that which is most sacrosanct in our constitution, our bill of rights and the right to equality and dignity: that the state may not unfairly discriminate and that it has the responsibility to promote, respect and fulfil these rights.”
TheACDP claimed that there was a broader agenda to put churches and religious bodies under pressure. Party president Kenneth Meshoe said he would not be surprised if the section protecting rights of churches and religions would be“targeted next”. Meshoe criticised same-sex marriages by regurgitating that old chestnut “the first marriage was between Adam and Eve and not Adam and Steve”.
However Carter had anticipated Meshoe’s objection in her speech:
“To the ACDP, I wish to point out that to my thinking there is dissonance between your religious stance and aversion to gay and lesbian rights and the ethos of most of the world’s religions, which advocate love, tolerance and acceptance of all. Nonetheless, I reiterate that this amendment does not affect religious-order marriage officers,” she said.
Carter described the amendment as a timely reminder of the ethos that should inform the provision of government service, and of the values and principles that should inform the morality of those seeking to become civil servants. “It says that if you are employed as a nurse, for example, it is wrong to contend that it is not your duty to remove and clean the bedpans of one’s patients, or to feed them. It is wrong to seek employment as a teacher if you won’t treat all children equally or fairly regardless of race or creed — or if you refuse to be subjected to performance appraisals,” she said
The NFP’s Sibusiso Mncwabe rejected the bill on behalf of his party after complaining that despite them representing a large section of the population and having different beliefs, traditional leaders were not consulted.
TheAIC’s Lulama Ntshayisa charged that instead of passing an amendment bill, parliament should be repealing the Civil Union Act. Ntshayisa said his party did not support the original law and the amendment because they did not believe that same-sex marriages were “our culture”, or anybody’s culture. He added that marriage between people of same sex was a taboo. “We don’t say people shouldn’t do what they want, but the government shouldn’t be involved to enable such,”said Ntshayisa.
EconomicFreedom Fighters MP Hlengiwe Mkhaliphi differed, saying South Africa was a constitutional democracy with separation of Church and State. “Religious institutions are collective spaces belonging to those with firm beliefs…but officials acting on behalf of a democratic state must serve all South Africans equally.”
According to HomeAffairs, only 111 out of 412 branches currently have marriage officers willing to marry same-sex couples. There have been numerous reports of same sex couple being turned away by marriage officers. The Amendment will change this unsatisfactory situation. The Minister of Home Affairs will be obliged to ensure that there is a marriage officer available to solemnise a civil union at every Department of Home Affairs office. Any new staff employed by the department will no longer have the option to opt out of marrying same-sex couples.