November 14 2006 will become a historic day for homosexuals in Africa. For the
first time, the South African Parliament has passed a law authorizing homosexual
marriage, although in limited form. The controversial law is opposed by many in
the Church and doesn’t entirely satisfy the people directly affected.
The path to approval began a year ago, with a ruling by the Constitutional Court
on a case brought by a gay couple and gave Parliament a year’s time to legislate
approval of gay marriages. The South African constitution is the first in the
world that specifically prohibits discrimination based on sexual orientation.
Eleven months later, with a majority of 230 against 41, Parliament passed the
Civic Union Bill, which modifies the previous Marriage Act by defining marriage
as “a voluntary union between two persons,” without reference to their gender.
The provision passed due to party discipline imposed by the African National Congress,
which ordered its members to approve the bill despite any personal reservations
they might have. In response a large segment of the religious community has charged
that the new law doesn’t have the support of most of South Africa’s population.
This was the argument of a press release distributed by the South African Catholic
Bishop’s Conference (SACBC), which has not yet responded to repeated inquiries
from PeaceReporter. According to SACBC, such a betrayal of majority opinion in
South African would inflict a harsh blow on the young nation’s democratic system.
But others, such as Deborah Bell, minister of the Deo Gloria Family Church, founded
in 1991, support homosexual unions. “The perception of homosexuality is very complex,”
Bell told PeaceReporter, “Every society in the world has a certain measure of
homophobia. But in many cities in South Africa, especially Cape Town, homosexuals
are widely accepted. The bishops’ viewpoint is not shared by all South African
churches and religious communities.”
The new provision has not met the approval of all homosexuals either. One controversial
detail in the law allows officials to refuse to officiate at marriages that offend
their religion or conscience. Bell argues, “Gay marriages have been legislated
by a specific law. The Constitution guarantees the same rights to all regardless
of sexual inclination. Why shouldn’t there be one law for everyone? That’s why
I’m not alone, in maintaining that this law is unconstitutional.” Despite its
defects, the new law is undeniably important and marks a historical moment for
the entire continent. There are numerous African nations in which homosexuality
is still a crime, such as Cameroon. The South African decision may mean that the
climate in the continent is changing.