highest court ruled Thursday that it is unconstitutional
to prevent same-sex couples from marrying, paving the way
for the country to become the first to legalize
same-sex unions on a continent where homosexuality
remains largely taboo.
The constitutional court gave parliament a year
to make the necessary legal changes, disappointing
activists, some of whom have been waiting years to
marry. "We were thinking we would be calling our friends
today and inviting them to our wedding," said Fikile
Vilakazi of the Forum for the Empowerment of Women,
who proposed to her partner more than six months ago.
"Now they are asking us to wait another year."
South Africa recognized the rights of gay people
in the constitution adopted after apartheid ended in
1994--the first in the world to prohibit
discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. But the
government has opposed attempts to extend the
definition of marriage in court to include same-sex
couples in the mostly Christian country.
Married couples have numerous rights still
denied gay couples, including the ability to make
decisions on each other's behalf in medical
emergencies and inheritance rights if a partner dies without
Judge Albie Sachs, who delivered Thursday's
ruling, said the common-law and Marriage Act
definitions of marriage as a union between a man and a
woman "are accordingly inconsistent with sections...of the
constitution to the extent that they make no provision for
same-sex couples to enjoy the status, entitlements,
and responsibilities they accord to heterosexual couples."
The court instructed parliament to extend the
definitions within a year, or else the words "or
spouse" would automatically be added by the courts,
the South African Press Association reported.
Judge Kate O'Regan agreed with the other 10
members of the court that same-sex marriage should be
legal but argued in a separate opinion that the court
should effect the changes immediately, a view shared by gay
Vilikazi expressed concern that lawmakers
could attempt to water down the decision by
introducing a different category of marriage for
same-sex couples. Proposals previously mooted in Parliament
include the introduction of civil unions, which would
provide the same legal benefits as marriage but would
not oblige religious institutions to solemnize them,
she told the Associated Press.
But some Christian groups argued that the ruling
already goes too far. "South Africa has a very strong
traditional and conservative population," said Steven
Swart, spokesman for the tiny African Christian
Democratic Party. "We as Christian democrats believe we
should treat all people with compassion, but there are
certain guidelines that we stand by: Marriage is a
union between a man and woman."
Rhema Church pastor Ray McCauley said, "It is a
sad day for South Africa when the very bedrock
foundation of society, the family, is redefined by a
court. We believe that the majority of South Africans do
not agree with this decision."
Thursday's ruling was in response to an appeal
by the government against a supreme court ruling last
year that said a lesbian couple's union should be
recognized. There was no immediate comment on the decision
from the government.
Marie Fourie and Cecelia Bonthuys, a couple from
Pretoria, brought the original application after the
government refused to recognize their October 2002
wedding on the basis of the common-law definition of
marriage. They were not present in court Thursday. (AP)