Pretoria - The decision to no longer recognise same-sex unions in the Dutch Reformed Church was taken at a special synod meeting after four days of intensive debating and praying, counsel for the Church argued on Tuesday in the Gauteng High Court, Pretoria.
The Church is opposing an application by several of its members, including Laurie Gaum, with the blessing of his father, Dr Frits Gaum, a well-known figure in the Church. They are challenging the Dutch Reformed Church’s decision to go back on its word regarding same-sex unions.
The Church made headlines when it in 2015 announced that its various congregations could decide for itself if it wanted to give its blessing to same-sex unions. A year later, following a lot of pressure from some of its members, it announced that a gay or lesbian person can only be a minister if he or she is celibate. Ministers were also no longer able to solemnise same-sex civil unions.
Advocate Schalk Burger SC, for the Church, said this decision was not taken lightly. He argued that since 2004 its general synod confirmed its stance against gay unions in the Church. It changed its stance in 2015, but due to a lot of opposition from its members, it decided to revert back to its previous stance.
Burger said the synod acted above board regarding this change of heart and it did follow the correct process.
Gaum stance is that through this “flawed” decision-making process and its outcome, the Church and the synod have infringed the right to religion itself and they have imposed their religious beliefs on others.
The result, Gaum said, is severe emotional and spiritual harm, culminating in deep human suffering.
He said the effect of the 2016 decision is to preclude members of the gay and lesbian community from concluding civil partnerships - which Parliament has provided by law for all South Africans - in their own Church.
Gaum said in the Church’s own words, the effect of the 2016 decisions is that “a gay or lesbian person can only be a minister if he or she is celibate and ministers are not permitted to solemnise same-sex civil unions”. This is the position, even if every Church member or pastor in a particular congregation, held a different religious conviction, he said.
Advocate Jeremy Gauntlett SC argued on behalf of Gaum and the other applicants that the stance of the Church is that if its gay or lesbian members were not happy with the 2016 decision, they could leave.
He said the Church is making the applicants out to be “incorrigible bigots”, while all they are trying to do is to protect their constitutional rights.
Gauntlett argued that the Church is hiding behind the argument of freedom of religion, while this is trumping the rights of the applicants. According to him, the Church is discriminating against some of its member's sexual orientation.
Gauntlett further argued that the Church cannot live in its own little world and privatise discrimination, as this was clearly against the Bill of Rights.
Gauntlett and his team are acting free of charges for the applicants.
The court was meanwhile packed with members representing the church, including its moderator, Nelis Janse van Rensburg and its general secretary, Gustav Claassen. There were also various representatives of the gay and lesbian community, including Ecclesia de Lange, the gay former church minister who was earlier axed from the Methodist Church.
The legal arguments are due to proceed until late in the afternoon.
* Receive IOL's top stories via WhatsApp by sending your name to 0745573535.