A court in South Africa ruled Friday that the Dutch Reformed Church’s rules against same-sex marriage are “unlawful and invalid.”
The decision comes from the bench of the Gauteng High Court in Pretoria led by Judge Joseph Raulinga, which reversed a decision to not recognize same-sex marriage in the church that was made by the denomination’s general synod in November 2016.
The general synod’s 2016 decision came after the Dutch Reformed Church moved in 2015 to allow individual church councils to recognize same-sex marriages. The decision was reversed a year later after immense pressure from church members.
Along with not allowing same-sex marriage, the church required lesbian and gay people to remain celibate if they choose to serve as clergy.
The synod’s 2016 decision was challenged by the Rev. Laurie Gaum, his father, Frits Gaum, and eight other members of the Dutch Reformed Church, all of whom advocate for LGBT issues and launched litigation in an attempt to have the synod’s decision ruled unconstitutional.
They claimed that the church’s position violated section 9 of the South African Constitution that deals with equality and discrimination, according to SABC News.
Minister Andre Bartlett, who fought for the right of same-sex relationships, praised the court’s decision.
“Gay members of the church are fully accepted and can be elected to all positions in the church, whether they are in relationships or not,” Bartlett told the South African television outlet eNCA after the ruling. “It also means that church councils that don’t feel free to elect people to their councils can do so.”
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Bartlett assured that the ruling means that gay ministers can be licensed and ordained whether they are in relationships or not.
“The only norm would be that all relationships in the church — whether they are heterosexual or homosexual — there are certain norms that have to be held to,” he said.
The 24-hour television news broadcaster reports that the Dutch Reformed Church is reviewing the high court’s decision but has not yet indicated that it will appeal the court’s ruling.
Dutch Reformed Church General Secretary Gustav Claassen told eNCA outside the courtroom that for now, the church holds to its 2016 position against same-sex marriage.
“Our current position is that of 2016,” Claassen said. “So I can’t actually react on that but we will scrutinize the judgment and we will come back and comment on it.”
Guam said that he is “grateful and elated” by the decision. Guam said the ruling is just the first step and now it is up to everyone on the “grassroots level to step up to the plate.”
“The courts actually assist us in moving forward and making clear to us what is really discriminatory. It is an infringement on human dignity as the court has said in this case,” he told eNCA in a phone interview. “Therefore, the church, by all means as a religious institution, is supposed to embody what the Gospel — the good news — is supposed to be all about.”
In the interview, Guam was asked if he anticipates that other denominations will face a similar fate in the courts and if he plans to assist others who want to challenge the traditional marriage stances of their churches.
“It is not only applicable on our internal denomination but also [for] religious institutions in general and institutions in general,” Guam said. “It holds them up against the background of the Constitution to which all of us in South Africa need to adhere. The Constitution is helping us and we should see it as an invitation for all institutions, especially for churches and religious institutions.”
The president of South African Union Council of Independent Churches, Archbishop Patrick Shole, told eNCA in an interview that he believes the Dutch Reformed Church’s policy on sexuality is correct. He added that his church also does not recognize same-sex marriage.
He voiced his support for a South African constitutional court’s decision last year to throw out a lawsuit filed by a lesbian minister against the Methodist Church of South Africa. The minister was fired after she announced in 2010 that she was marrying her partner.
“According to our statement of faith, we don’t conduct lesbian and gay marriages,” Shole said, adding that practicing homosexuals probably would not feel welcome in many Pentecostal or charismatic churches in his network. “God created man and woman, not same-sex. It is man and woman.”
Same-sex marriage has been legal in South Africa since 2006.