By agreement between the parties, the settlement agreement concluded last week between same sex couple Mr Neil Coulson and Mr Jonathan Sedgwick, and Wolseley guesthouse owners Steph and Marina Neethling, was made an Order of the Bellville Equality Court yesterday (Tuesday, April 21).
The Magistrate who granted the Order in chambers, commented that the Order bound the parties to “respect each other’s beliefs within the context of the Constitution of the Republic of South Africa”. As such, the order was not a victory for “gay rights” as claimed by many, but a victory for the Constitution which is founded on respect and tolerance for one another.
Correct interpretation of agreement
The Magistrate thought it to be desirable that the public be informed and educated in this regard, and that the media be appraised of the correct interpretation of the agreement in accordance with the spirit thereof. Contrary to what was previously reported in the Cape Times, the terms of the agreement did not follow a “ruling” by the Equality Court. The agreement was the result of mediation proceedings facilitated by an external mediator, and without any involvement of the Court. The role of the mediator was not to adjudicate the matter, but simply to facilitate dialogue between the parties with a view to reaching an amicable resolution to the problem, as indeed happened.
The parties agreed that they could request the Court to make the agreement an Order of Court, as they duly did yesterday. Contrary to what has been reported in the media, the Court at no stage made a finding that rights of equality override religious beliefs. The merits of the case have not been argued in, or decided by, the Equality Court – either previously or yesterday.
It is important to understand that yesterday’s Court Order does not set a precedent in law to force Christians to act contrary to their conscience, religion and belief in future. Steph Neethling, the guest house owner, commented that he was “excited” that the agreement has now been made an Order of the Court. He said that he believes that “the Order acknowledges that the South African community is a diverse one in which there is space for people to hold different beliefs. This includes the right of any Christian to believe and act according to the Bible.” Freedom of Religion South Africa (FOR SA) acted as the First Amicus Curiae (“Friend of the Court”) in the matter between Mr Coulson (the Complainant) and Steph and Marina Neethling (the Respondents).