Committee adopts Bill that threatens conscience rights of civil marriage officers

Parliament, Cape Town.

During a committee meeting yesterday evening, the Select Committee on Security and Justice adopted the contentious Civil Union Amendment Bill which proposes removing rights of civil marriage officers to object to presiding over unions that violate their conscience or sincerely-held beliefs.

The committee’s decision followed a media announcement yesterday by Human Rights organisation Cause for Justice (CFJ) that it was making an urgent appeal to Parliament to uphold fundamental rights after it obtained a copy of a parliamentary briefing presentation “riddled with errors of law, ostensible biased legal interpretations and other deficiencies”.

Following its adoption by the committee, the Bill will be considered for final adoption during a plenary session of the National Council of Provinces on a date still to be determined by the Parliamentary planning committee.

The briefing presentation which prompted CFJ to make an urgent appeal to Parliament was prepared by Parliamentary Legal Services (PLS) to brief the select committee on the Bill, says CFJ in a press release.

It says members of Parliament rely on the PLS to provide them with accurate, thorough and unbiased expositions of the law that applies to the legislative proposals before them.

“The PLS has done a great disservice to the committee – and South Africa’s constitutional democracy,” says CFJ.

“Without an unbiased and balanced understanding of the principle of reasonable accommodation and the right to conscientious objection, it can be misconstrued as unfair discrimination or worse, incitement to bigotry – which it is not. On the contrary, properly construed the conscientious objection clause is a legal mechanism by which the values of our constitutional democracy are upheld.”

CFJ says that in order to assist the committee to remedy the misdirection resulting from the presentation content, it yesterday provided the Committee with commentary on the erroneous and deficient aspects of the presentation. Whether the committee took note of CFJ’s commentary is unclear, as it subsequently adopted the Bill.

CFJ says that since the Bill’s introduction in Parliament in May 2018, it has closely followed and participated in its progress. It has delivered written submissions to both the Portfolio Committee on Home Affairs and the Select Committee on Security and Justice.

It has also repeatedly requested both the aforementioned committees to allow public hearings in respect of the Bill.

“Hearings would have allowed interested parties and stakeholders an opportunity to engage elected representatives directly and allowed opportunity for elucidation of matters of uncertainty or on which there are conflicting views. Given the irregularities / constitutionally flawed PLS briefings on the Bill, the necessity for oral/direct engagement has become all the more important. CFJ and other stakeholders have been denied a critical opportunity to serve the legislature in this case.

“CFJ has consistently argued that a legislative framework that protects and promotes the rights of both same-sex couples and civil marriage officers who are conscientious objectors, is to be preferred above any legal regime where either group’s rights are denied at the expense of others’ rights.

“As a human rights organisation, Cause for Justice supports laws that promote and protect the rights and freedoms of all South Africans and celebrate the rich diversity of her people,’ says the press release.

 

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