On Tuesday, June 17, the Equality Court in Belville convened to hear legal argument on the extent to which Christian business owners may obey their conscience, religion and belief in the conduct of their businesses, if at all.
At the centre of the dispute, are the Christian owners of “House of Bread” guest house in Wolseley. The owners have been taken to court by a homosexual couple as a result of their inability to offer a double room to the couple and referral to another guest house instead. The Christian couple believe that if they willingly and knowingly make a room available where homosexual sex will be practiced, this will make them liable to sin as they would in effect be helping the homosexual couple to sin. While they would therefore have been willing to make two single rooms available to the couple, and have done so in the past, their moral conscience, religion and belief unfortunately did not allow them to offer the couple a double room — for the same reason that they do not allow unmarried couples to sleep together in the same room, or a married person with someone who is not his/her spouse, or do not allow prostitution or alcohol abuse on their property which they consider to be God’s domain entrusted into their care and for which they will have to give an account one day.
Explaining the moral quandary that the Christian owners find themselves in, Andrew Selley (CEO of FOR SA) commented that “while Christians would agree that the forgiveness and mercy of Jesus are available for all sinners (and we pray that the homosexual couple in this case finds His mercy and His grace), some struggle to understand why the Christian owners hold the conviction they do, often quoting the story of the woman caught in adultery to try show that Jesus would have acted differently to the guest house owners in the situation. It is not however that simple and the example falls short in properly reflecting how Jesus might have responded. In this case, the guest house owners face the difficult question of what Jesus would have done if the woman caught in adultery, had asked Him if she could use one of His rooms to commit adultery with another woman’s husband before she committed the sin. The guest house owners believe that Jesus would have lovingly and compassionately told her to turn from sin, rather than make money by offering her a place to fornicate. As His disciples, this is the quandary that the Christian guest house owners face with the couple practising homosexuality.”
Court forced to decide
In Court on Tuesday, Freedom of Religion South Africa (FOR SA) who acts as First Amicus Curiae in the matter, argued that the matter ”is a difficult one. What the Court is really being asked to do in this case, is to decide between two conflicting and irreconcilable world views, and to sit as judge on controversial and complicated questions of moral judgment. In the end, the nature of the proceedings being litigious, there will be a winner and a loser and ultimately, a ‘correct’ and a ‘wrong’ world view or moral framework as decided by the Court. This, when our Constitution is founded upon the very concepts of pluralism, diversity and tolerance which allow for and embrace different world views existing alongside and making space for each other.”
Against this background, FOR SA together with the Christian owners of the guest house requested an order that the parties “meaningfully engage” with each other with a view to resolving their dispute amicably. “A conciliatory approach is in the interest of both parties, as well as in the interest of building a bridge of mutual respect and acceptance between the broader gay and lesbian community on the one hand and the Christian faith community on the other, rather than drive a wedge between these communities as this case unfortunately has the potential to do irrespective of who comes out the winner”, said Advocate Badenhorst of FOR SA.
Unfortunately, the request for conciliation was not supported by the South African Human Rights Commission (SAHRC) appearing as the legal representatives for the homosexual couple, or the Commission for Gender Equality (CGE) appearing as Second Amicus Curiae in the matter. The SAHRC and CGE insist that the Court must order the Christian owners to: unconditionally apologise for their “unfair discrimination” against homosexual people; pay a fine to Pride Shelter Cape Town; and in future always make (double) rooms available to homosexual couples – even if to do so, would violate the owners’ conscience, religion and belief.
The case has been postponed until next week Tuesday 24 June, when the Court will give its ruling. If the Court decides that the parties should have the opportunity to “meaningfully engage” with each other, the matter will be postponed further for this purpose. If the Court decides that conciliation would be a futile exercise, the matter will go ahead and the parties will be expected to present legal argument on the issues on that day.
Commenting on the matter, Advocate Badenhorst said that “it needs to be made clear that the guest house owners are not homophobic or ‘gay-haters’. At no point, did they kick the couple out or show any animosity towards them because of their sexual preference. At all times, they treated the homosexual couple with respect and kindness, while trying to obey their moral conscience and Biblical conviction for which they cannot apologise and which they cannot simply change because ‘times have changed’. No person should be forced to act against their conscience, religion and belief.”
Advocate Badenhorst comments further, “what really saddens me about this case, is the sharp criticism that the Christian owners have received from Christian brothers and sisters (on social media and otherwise), for doing what they believe to be right before God. While some Christians may believe that it is good and right for the Christian owners not to allow behaviour that grieves God under their roof, other Christians may disagree. Romans 14 warns us of the danger of criticism, and commands us repeatedly not to condemn another believer and argue with each other about what is right and wrong. As believers, we are responsible to the Lord to whom we will each give a personal account, and He will judge whether we are right or wrong. So, let’s stop condemning each other, and aim instead for harmony and try to build each other up (Romans 14:19).
“For the Christian owners in this case, they are following their convictions, what they believe to be right before God. To expect them to do otherwise, would be to expect them to sin (Romans 14:23). While as Christians we may not share similar convictions regarding the practical outworking of our faith, we share a common conviction that our lives should bring glory to God who saved us and who wants to draw all men unto Himself. May this cause us to stand united behind the Christian guest house owners rather than divided, and move our hearts to pray rather than to criticize. ” she concluded.