Cape Town - Wolseley guesthouse owners Steph and Marina Neethling were told to apologise to married couple Neil Coulson and Jonathan Sedgwick for not allowing them to make a booking at their establishment because they are gay.
The ruling was made by the Equality Court following a day of mediation between the two couples this week.
The Equality Court had referred the matter for mediation late last year.
In November 2013, Coulson and Sedgwick were denied the right to book accommodation at the House of Bread in Wolseley, which is owned by the Neethlings.
They were refused a booking because they are in a same-sex relationship.
On Wednesday, following the mediation process, the court said the Neethlings have to apologise for the hurt, pain and suffering experienced by Coulson and Sedgwick as a result of the Neethlings’ conduct. They also have to apologise for causing any other hurt during subsequent discussions between them.
According to the mediation ruling, both parties have to respect each other’s beliefs within the context of the constitution, and the Neethlings have to agree to act consistently with the Bill of Rights, notably section 9.
“This is a victory for human rights and constitutional democracy,” Coulsen said on Thursday.
“We have a victory. It is quite remarkable. Essentially it is a huge victory for constitutional democracy. It sets a great precedent for gay couples in the future. We are delighted with the outcome.”
Coulson said they had accepted the Neethlings’ unconditional apology for the hurt and suffering endured as a result of their conduct.
With the matter resolved, they will not head back to the Equality Court. “If they (the Neethlings) default, they will be in contempt of court,” Coulson added.
“This is not just about us. It is something we had to do for the greater community. It was a case of doing what was right for the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersexual, queer and asexual community.”
When approached for comment, Steph Neethling said the couple wanted to move on with their lives.
“This is a private matter, which is resolved. We don’t want to comment or talk about it. As they said in the mediation, what happened in it is confidential. Everything is in the past, and we would like to move on with our lives,” he said.
While gay rights groups have welcomed the ruling, Keegan Lakay, provincial legal officer for the Commission for Gender Equality, who had acted as a friend of the court at the initial hearing, said he is very disappointed.
“They had a strong case and this matter would have created a precedent in law, which would have prevented potential perpetrators of hate speech and related crimes from raising religious freedom and belief as a justification for infringing on the constitutional rights of same-sex partners and the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersexual and queer community individuals repeatedly considered by staunch Christians as deviant and unnatural according to biblical scriptures.
“LGBTQIA remains a marginalised group in South Africa despite many legislative gains made in the past few years, but they are still not treated equally to their heterosexual brothers and sisters.”
Funeka Soldaat, of the Free Gender organisation, said it was sad that gay people have to go to court for the constitution to be implemented, but added: “I am happy about the judgment.”
Matthew Clayton, of the Triangle Project, said the results of the mediation is a positive development.
“We’re pleased to see that courts are not willing to accept a situation where the right to freedom of religion is used to justify discrimination against lesbian, gay, bisexual, transsexual and intersex people and see this as a positive development,” Clayton said.
Clayton said while the matter does not capture the experience of many LGBTI people in South Africa, who face frequent and often deadly violence, it is also important to address the small and dehumanising injustices that LGBTI people must deal with.