Now Dutch Reformed Church won’t appeal same-sex ruling
But this could change after a synod summit meeting in October, where the issue will be discussed again
The Dutch Reformed Church has decided not to appeal the High Court ruling that reversed its decision to ban same-sex unions within the church.
Earlier this month, the High Court in Pretoria overturned the church’s decision to not recognise same-sex unions. In 2015, the church agreed to allow pastors to marry same-sex couples within its institutions, as well as lifting the ban on LGBTQI pastors in relationships.
However, reportedly spurred on by homophobic congregants, the church reversed its decision less than a year later, saying such relationships do not meet “Christian guidelines”. Ministers were also prevented from solemnising same-sex unions.
Then a full bench at the Pretoria High Court, led by Judge Joseph Raulinga, overturned the decision, following almost two years of opposition from Reverend Laurie Gaum, his father and eight other members of the church.
Speaking to Times Select on Friday, church spokesperson Nelius van Rensburg said that after much deliberation – and a meeting with the church’s lawyers – officials had opted not to appeal the court’s decision. He said this meant the initial 2015 decision by the church synod would stand – for now.
He said that while the church would abide by the court ruling, a synod summit in October would be the next event where the issue would be discussed. “This is not to say the church won’t change its decision, but the court ruling does call for us to move in a particular direction,” he said.
Gaum told Times Select he was disappointed at the ambiguity in the church’s statement, with veiled hints that this may not be the end of the battle for the church to recognise LGBTQI pastors’ and congregants’ rights. He explained that following the court’s ruling, gay ministers would no longer be forced to remain celibate to stay in the church. It would however still be up to each church’s congregation to determine if they would ordain an openly gay minister.
When asked if this could potentially lead to discrimination, Gaum said he was confident there were enough open-minded, progressive congregations to allow gay or lesbian ministers to find the right church for them.
Regarding marriage officiations, Gaum said Dutch Reformed ministers could now, in their personal capacity, officiate same-sex marriages, though it would once again be up to the congregation as to whether such ceremonies could take place within the church walls. The Dutch Reformed Church also has to apply with the department of home affairs to become an institution that can conduct same-sex marriages, as written in the Civil Union Act.
This process could take months, and Gaum suggested that the church was unlikely to apply for such licensing until after the synod summit in October.
While Gaum said he was wary of the church’s ambiguity, he and his fellow applicants said in a statement they were “relieved and thankful” at the decision to not appeal the court’s ruling.
“We believe that history and justice are on the side of the reinstatement of a 2015 inclusive decision of the Church’s general assembly which allows for LGBTQI clergy to be non-celibate and for Dutch Reformed ministers to officiate same-sex marriages, which is now effective again. We look forward to the speedy implementation of the mentioned decision and trust that the church will go into a process of restitution in which healing can be achieved for past hurts and division,” the statement read.
Law expert Prof Stephen Tuson of Wits University, said the High Court ruling was a precedent setter, and could be used in other similar matters to bolster their legal arguments. If another congregant of another denomination opened up a similar case calling for recognition of same-sex marriages, the Gaum matter could be used as “persuasive authority”, meaning the other court would have to consider it and explain why it deviated from such a judgment, Tuson said. He also said that even if the Dutch Reformed Church missed its appeal deadline, it could still ask the courts for condonation and reopen the appeal process, provided they had strong enough reasoning to do so.
Over the past three years, the Dutch Reformed Church has made numerous changes in its stance on same-sex ministers and marriages.
The church’s lawyers argued in court that the decision to rescind approval on gay unions was not taken lightly. In the recent application, advocate Schalk Burger told the High Court that since 2004 the general synod had held its stance against gay unions, but the decision to alter this saw backlash from its members, prompting the about-turn. He argued that the Constitution allowed churches to enforce their own mandate.
“I would like to submit that there is no unfair discrimination. As I understand the constitution there is room for the church to follow its own doctrine,” he said.
Gaum, through his own lawyers, argued that the church’s decision-making process was flawed, and that the church and its synod had infringed on the right to religion, imposing their religious beliefs on others.
In effect, the 2016 synod decision precluded members of the LGBTQI community from engaging in civil partnerships – which has been legal since 2005 – in their chosen church. Advocate Jeremy Gauntlet, representing Gaum and his associates, said the policy within the church was discriminator, hurtful and unconstitutional.
“If celibacy is the virtue of morality, then they would tell everyone in the church to be celibate. If it holds good for race, holds good for gender then it should hold good for sexual orientation,” he said.