South Africa is one step closer to protecting same-sex couples against Kim Davis-style discrimination following approval in the lower house of its parliament.
On Thursday, the National Assembly passed the Civil Union Amendment Bill, which closes a loophole in South Africa’s 2006 civil unions bill allowing officiants to refuse to solemnize same-sex weddings. Under Section 6 of the legislation, marriage officers are permitted to object on the grounds of “conscience, religion, and belief.”
Lawmaker Deidre Carter claimed the exemption is against the values of democratic governance.
“It cannot be in our constitutional democracy that civil servants can be afforded the right in law about whom they would like to serve,” Carter, who authored the private member’s bill, told colleagues in the Parliament of South Africa.
The Congress of the People (COPE) representative claimed the “religious freedom” provision has led to widespread discrimination against same-sex couples.
“I received complaints that couples were being turned away from a number of Home Affairs offices as there were no marriage officers that were prepared to solemnise same-sex marriages,” she alleged. “My investigations revealed that this tendency was in fact more widespread than initially thought.”
Of the 412 local branches of the Home Affairs office in South Africa, only 111 currently have officiants on staff who are willing to marry LGBTQ partners. That’s less than 27 percent.
Carter said that addressing this problem “goes beyond the mere repeal of Section 6 of the Civil Union Act.”
“It touches upon the genesis of our constitutional order,” she claimed. “It touches that which is most sacrosanct in our Constitution, our Bill of the Rights: the right to equality and dignity; that the state may not unfairly discriminate; and that it has the responsibility to promote, respect and fulfill these rights.”
Supporters of the Civil Union Amendment Bill claimed religious exemptions to same-sex marriage violate Article 9 of the South African Constitution, which forbids bias on the basis of characteristics like gender, sex, and sexual orientation.
The bill was opposed by the National Freedom Party (NFP) and African Christian Democratic Party (ACDP). They claim it infringes on the rights of people of faith.
That argument was a common one in the United States after the Supreme Court passed same-sex marriage in a landmark 2015 ruling. Davis, a clerk in Rowan County, Ky., went to jail for five days after claiming that she could not sign same-sex marriage certificates as an Apostolic Christian.
But as in the SCOTUS ruling, the legislation would not compel ministers or other religious officials to endorse marriages that go against their faith. It merely applies to government employees.
The Civil Union Amendment Bill will now head to the upper house of the legislature—known as the National Council of Provinces—for approval. After that, President Cyril Ramaphosa must sign the pro-LGBTQ legislation before it becomes the law of the land.
But should the president approve the amendment, it would not take effect right away. The bill mandates a two-year training period for Home Affairs Officers previously granted exception under the law.
During the transition, officers who have no issue with marrying same-sex couples must be present in cases of religious objection.