The SA Human Rights Commission (SAHRC) on Monday, launched an unfair discrimination application in the Equality Court against Western Cape wedding venue Beloftebos which has been in the news for refusing, on the grounds of conscience and religious belief, to host same-sex weddings.
The media, apparently, were provided with the SAHRC application papers before Belfotebos received them, and the venue owners were faced with questions from reporters before they saw the documents, raising questions about procedural fairness in the matter.
In a press release on Monday, Freedom of Religion South Africa (FOR SA), which represents Beloftebos, said at that stage Beloftebos had only been informed via the media that the SAHRC intended taking their matter to the Equality Court. As no court papers had been served yet the venue owners could not comment on specific allegations, said For SA.
In its press release, FOR SA says: “Beloftebos’ decision not to organise and host same-sex weddings is because of the owners’ deeply held religious convictions that marriage is a sacred covenant between a man and a woman in the presence of God, as well as a symbolic picture of the love and commitment between Christ (as the Bridegroom) and His Church (the Bride).
“They are therefore not unfairly discriminating against anyone for who they love, or how they love. They welcome everyone equally to their venue and would happily organise a birthday party, an office year-end celebration or any similar event for a same-sex couple. The owners do believe, however – based on the constitutional right to religious freedom and belief – that they should be allowed to differentiate between the events and activities that they are willing to facilitate on their property. For example, because of their religious beliefs, they would also decline to host a Halloween party, regardless of who requested it.”
Reporting on the launching of the SAHRC application, News 24 says that the SAHRC believes its case against the venue is important enough to be heard by a full bench in the Western Cape High Court, where it launched its Equality Court application on Monday.
“This is obviously a case that will not only be applicable to wedding venues,” commissioner André Gaum said.
“It will be about unfair discrimination, specifically based on sexual orientation. It will be applicable to all businesses.”
The application follows Beloftebos’s refusal, in January, to host a proposed wedding reception for lesbian couple Megan Watling and Saha-Lee Hawkes in 2021. In 2017 the venue in Stanford also turned down a similar request by another same-sex couple, Alexandra Thorne and Alex Lu. Both couples complained to the SAHRC.
Gaum said Watling and Heekes would be bringing an application in their own names but that the SAHRC would request that the judge president consolidate the matter.
He said the SAHRC viewed the venue’s conduct as unconstitutional as one could not, on the basis of religious beliefs, discriminate against the sexual orientation of others.
He said the SAHRC would request the court to declare that Beloftebos and its owners are “in breach of their obligation not to discriminate unfairly”, to restrain the venue and its owners from continuing to apply the blanket policy of excluding same-sex couples from the venue based on their religious beliefs, and that the owners of the venue be ordered to apologise to the affected couples.
He said lower courts, which do not set precedent, had heard similar cases. He believed this was a perfect case to take to the High Court, sitting as the Equality Court, in order to set a “binding precedent across the spectrum”.
FOR SA is also mindful of the potential of the Beloftebos case to result in a far-reaching ruling.
“If the court decides against Beloftebos and forces them to participate in and celebrate events that violate their conscience, religion and belief, then every supplier of goods and service provider in South Africa will equally be forced to accept work that they may fundamentally disagree with,” says FOR SA in its Monday press release.
In an interview with SA FM this week, FOR SA legal representative Daniela Ellerbeck, made the point that if the SAHRC were to win the case, it would, for example, not be out of the question, for a homosexual t-shirt printer, to be compelled to accept a request to print a shirt with the message that “Homosexuality is sin”.
“It is very much a conscience and free speech issue,” she said.