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Same-sex marriage
approved in South Africa

Same-sex marriage
approved in South Africa

A parliamentary committee approved proposals for same-sex marriages in South Africa on Thursday, clearing the way for the passage of legislation that would be unique on a deeply conservative continent

A parliamentary committee approved proposals for same-sex marriages in South Africa on Thursday, clearing the way for the passage of legislation that would be unique on a deeply conservative continent. The compromise, reached after heated public debate, upset religious groups, traditionalists, and even some members of the governing African National Congress, while gay rights activists said it didn't go far enough.

''It's been a very difficult time. It was a major challenge,'' said Patrick Chauke, chairman of the Home Affairs Portfolio Committee, which spent weeks touring the country to gauge public opinion and received nearly 6,000 written comments.

The civil unions bill will go to a full session of parliament Tuesday. Despite the unease in the ANC ranks, it is expected to pass as lawmakers have been ordered to follow the party line and told there is little room for maneuver.

In Africa, homosexuality is still largely taboo. It is illegal in Zimbabwe, Kenya, Uganda, Nigeria, Tanzania, Ghana, and most other sub-Saharan countries. South Africa recognized gay rights 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 long opposed attempts to extend the definition of marriage in court to include same-sex couples in the mostly Christian country.

Married couples currently 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 a will. South Africa's Constitutional Court ruled last year that the country's marriage legislation was illegal because it discriminated against same-sex couples. It gave the government until December 1 to adopt new legislation.

The bill provides for the ''voluntary union of two persons, which is solemnized and registered by either a marriage or civil union.'' It does not specify whether they are heterosexual or gay partnerships.

But it also says marriage officers need not perform a ceremony between same-sex couples if doing so would conflict with his or her ''conscience, religion, and belief.'' That could leave gay couples shopping for someone to perform their ceremony.

Gay rights groups welcomed the inclusion of the term ''marriage'' in the legislation but said they were disappointed that same-sex couples were being treated differently from heterosexual couples because of the opt-out clause.

''Everyone should be governed by one law,'' said Vista Kaupa of the Triangle Project, which provides support for gays and lesbians. ''Marriage should be for everyone. There should be one encompassing umbrella for everyone.''

Jonathan Berger of the AIDS Law Project said the wording implied ''something inherently problematic about same-sex marriage.'' He predicted that the bill would be open to challenge on grounds that it does not comply with the Constitutional Court ruling for full equality before the law.

Marie Fourie and Cecelia Bonthuys, a lesbian couple from Pretoria, sued the government for not recognizing their October 2002 wedding. The government lost the case as well as the appeals.

Chauke, who put aside his own religious convictions to steer the bill through the Home Affairs committee, said the final compromise was a ''wonderful'' product. ''We've arrived at the point where we've met the constitutional requirement that everybody is equal before the law,'' he told journalists.

The main opposition Democratic Alliance said it had ''serious problems'' with the bill and complained that it was rushed through the committee on the final day without a vote and without time for adequate debate. ''One of the problems is to call same-sex unions a marriage,'' Terius Delport said.

Steve Swart of the African Christian Democratic Party was visibly upset. ''It would be the first time that an African country has same-sex marriage. This we cannot accept,'' he said. (AP)

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