Fierce debate over Civil Unions Bill

There was a, ahem, spirited debate over the new Civil Unions Bill which has been tabled in Parliament and which is intended to reform marriage legislation in South Africa.  According to IOL, people gathered at UCT earlier this week had an opportunity to see a war of words waged on religious grounds, on one hand, and constitutional grounds, on the other hand. 

Errol Naidoo, national leader of His People Church faced off against David Bilchitz, a constitutional lawyer (and friend of mine) who drafted the submission to parliament by the gay and lesbian community’s joint working group.  David Russell, former Anglican Bishop of Grahamstown was also present at the debate.

Naidoo has been seeking a constitutional amendment to protect the institution of marriage as it has existed in our law.  He sought support for his efforts in his interpretation of Christian doctrine:

"Marriage is not an invention of the law," he said. "It has existed as an institution since the beginning of civilisation and thus precedes our modern laws."

Naidoo maintained that preventing gays and lesbians from being able to marry or have some form of legally recognised civil union was not a form of discrimination equivalent to apartheid.  He went on to state that ‘Apartheid contained "the unchangeable characteristic of colour" while "homosexuality is a sexual behaviour and can be changed", he argued, provoking a chorus of boos from the students’.

Bilchitz wasted little time in responding to Naidoo by stating that:

"It seems to me that the particular type of Christianity [Naidoo] is promoting is a particularly unattractive version of Christianity full of bigotry, hatred and is far from the love that it seems to me is part of Christian doctrine,"

He went on to deal with the proposed legislation on constitutional grounds and argued that the proposed legislation does not go far enough to entrench true equality between gay unions and traditional marriage on that basis that a differentiation between the two automatically means there is inequality between them.  As I understand the argument, Bilchitz is advocating simply opening up marriage to gay couples rather than creating a new category of union to cater for gay couples.  In a way, this is analogous to the provision of separate amenities for whites and non-whites during Apartheid times, although perhaps not to the same degree.

The Bill is expected to be passed soon and I am curious to see whether there will be constitutional challenges to the new Act in due course.  I suspect there may well be challenges on both sides and this could very well become one of the key developments in the struggle for the recognition of gay rights in South Africa.

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