The South African supreme court ruled Tuesday that a lesbian couple's marriage should be recognized under South African law in what is considered a major step toward legalizing same-sex marriage in the country. But the court suspended its decision for two years to give the government time to amend the statutes accordingly.
Marie Fourie and Cecelia Bonthuys, a couple from Pretoria, brought the application after the Pretoria high court refused to recognize their October 2002 wedding on the basis of the common law definition of marriage as a union between a man and woman.
In a majority decision, the supreme court declared Tuesday that the definition should be extended to include same-sex partners. Judge Edwin Cameron said the law should read, "Marriage is the union of two persons to the exclusion of all others for life," the South African Press Association reported. There was no immediate comment from the government, which opposed the application.
South Africa recognized the civil rights of gay people in the constitution adopted after apartheid ended in 1994, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.
But married couples have numerous rights still denied to gay couples, including the ability to make decisions on each other's behalf in medical emergencies as well as inheritance rights if a partner dies without a will, said Evert Knoesen of the Lesbian and Gay Equality Project. "Recognition of marriages between two persons of the same sex will eradicate unfair legal restrictions against lesbian and gay people and assist in removing the stigma and prejudice associated with the community," Knoesen said in a statement welcoming Tuesday's judgment.
The Equality Project and 18 other groups have filed an application against the minister of home of affairs in the Johannesburg High Court challenging the constitutionality of the remaining statutory and regulatory restrictions against same-sex marriage.
However, Tuesday's ruling was not welcomed by all. The tiny opposition African Christian Democratic Party demanded a referendum on the issue. "The five major religions--Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Islam, and Judaism--recognize and uphold the natural, heterosexual understanding of marriage," said Steve Swart, the party's justice spokesman.