Court case could impact church autonomy: Call to stand together

The Pretoria High Court where arguments will be heard in the Gaum and others vs Dutch Reformed Church and others case. (PHOTO: University of Pretoria)

By Freedom of Religion SA (FOR SA)

On August 21 2018, the Pretoria High Court will hear argument in an important case (Gaum and others vs Dutch Reformed Church and others) that could potentially have dire implications for the autonomy of the Church — and indeed the broader religious community — in South Africa.

The issue before the Court is the 2016 decision by the General Synod of the Dutch Reformed Church (DRC) pertaining to the authority of their congregations to make independent decisions relating to same-sex marriages / civil unions. However, it has morphed into a case which potentially challenges the ability of each denomination, church or religious grouping to set their own doctrine and to be entitled to govern their internal affairs according to their interpretation of their religious doctrine.

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This situation has now further come about because of an application by the Commission for Gender Equality (CGE) to intervene as a “Friend of the Court” (Amicus Curiae) in the case. The CGE is asking the Court to find that, from a constitutional point of view, religious organisations / groupings should not have a discretion to decide whether or not they will solemnise same-sex civil unions / marriages.

Should the Court make such a finding, it effectively means that churches and religious organisations can be forced to adopt certain (“politically correct”) doctrinal positions, even if such positions go directly against their religious convictions and beliefs. This is a severe infringement of religious freedom and the autonomy of the religious community as a whole. It must therefore be defended at all costs.

For this reason, it is very important that denominations, churches and religious groupings in South Africa — irrespective of their own doctrinal views on the issue of same-sex relationships within the Church — intervene and make their voices heard in the matter. The primary aspect of this case on which we believe all can agree, concerns the vital importance of protecting the autonomy of the Church and the broader faith community from external interference in their beliefs.

Background facts of the abovementioned case
The applicants seek a review of the DRC’s decision (in November 2016) to reverse an earlier decision (of 2015), which permitted congregations to allow — but did not oblige — ministers to solemnise same-sex civil unions, and which also removed the celibacy requirement for gay and lesbian ministers.

The bulk of the applicants’ case concerns certain procedural irregularities, on the basis of which they allege the (2016) decision should be set aside and corrected by the Court. The application goes further, however, and alleges that the DRC’s decision amounts to unfair discrimination against gay and lesbian people, is unconstitutional and should for this reason be set aside and corrected by the Court.

It is on this constitutional point where there is a grave danger for interference with the autonomy of the Church — and indeed the ability of each denomination, church or religious grouping to set their own doctrines, regulations and rules according to their interpretation of their Holy texts.

Call to action
For this reason, FOR SA and others (including TEASA, the South African Council for the Protection and Promotion of Religious Rights and Freedoms, Family Policy Institute, Christian Lawyers Association, etc) have formed a group by the name of Alliance Defending the Autonomy of Churches in South Africa (ADACSA). ADACSA is applying to become Amicus Curiae in the case and will be arguing, firstly, that religious institutions have a constitutional right to religious freedom which includes — as a central aspect thereof — the right to institutional autonomy. (To be clear: ADACSA is NOT adopting a position for, or against, same-sex relationships in the Church — but rather advocating for the right of each religious institution, in accordance with their internal regulations and procedures, to determine such “core doctrines” for themselves.) Secondly, ADACSA is arguing that the CGE’s contentions are untenable and that its interpretation of the law contradicts the existing constitutional jurisprudence — particularly the “doctrine of entanglement” where Courts have always been very reluctant to involve themselves in the internal doctrinal and governance issues of religious organisations.

It is very important that the Church in particular presents a strong and united position on this matter. We therefore invite your church, ministry or organisation to stand with FOR SA and other organisations, and become part of ADACSA for purposes of intervening in this case to be heard on August 21.

The Constitution of ADACSA, a draft resolution and other relevant documents, are available on the FOR SA website at www.forsa.org.za/document-library — click on folder “Gaum v Dutch Reformed Church”. Could you please urgently consider your participation and if you would want to become part of ADACSA, complete the resolution and return it at your earliest convenience to ursulak@motcon.co.za

For more information please contact the instructing attorneys Maphalla Mokate Conradie Inc on 012 369 6200 or:
Teresa Conradie — Teresac@motcon.co.za
Crystal Maphalla — Crystalm@motcon.co.za

One Comment

  1. Catherine de Valence

    I am against same sex marriages for the Word of God clearly states that it is not pleasing to God. We are called not to belong to the world’s ways but to abide in God’s Word and ways. The Word of God doesn’t change because the world’s way changes. As church we need to be obedient to God, who is the essence of truth and love.