S. Africa's Top Court Blesses Gay Marriage

By Craig Timberg
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, December 2, 2005

JOHANNESBURG, Dec. 1 -- South Africa's highest court on Thursday recognized the marriage of two Pretoria women and gave Parliament a year to extend legal marital rights to all same-sex couples.

The ruling, greeted with jubilation by gay men and lesbians but with frustration by some church leaders, will make South Africa the first country to allow marriages between gay people on a continent where homosexual activity is widely condemned and often outlawed.

Only four countries in the world -- the Netherlands, Belgium, Spain and Canada -- currently allow same-sex marriages nationwide. Several others, mostly in Europe, recognize civil unions between gay partners.

"I'm ecstatic," said Marie Fourie, 54, speaking by phone from Pretoria after the ruling by South Africa's Constitutional Court. "It is wonderful for the gay society."

Fourie married Cecelia Bonthuys, 44, on Dec. 11, 2004, a decade after they began living together and several weeks after they won the right to wed from the nation's second-highest court. But after the ceremony, officials in the government's Department of Home Affairs refused to recognize their union and appealed the decision to the Constitutional Court, the nation's highest.

That appeal resulted in Thursday's 111-page opinion giving the government a year to begin treating such unions in the same way as those between men and women.

Fourie predicted the change would lead to declines in what many gay leaders said was persistent discrimination, while also giving same-sex couples the same rights as heterosexual couples, such as the right to open joint bank accounts and visit each other as family members in hospitals.

"There's always remarks," said Fourie, who recalled often being addressed by a slur in the Afrikaans language for gay men and lesbians. "You learn to live with it. But after today, I think they will swallow all that."

The court's judges unanimously agreed that South Africa's 1996 constitution, which prohibits discrimination based on sexual orientation, guarantees the right of gay men and lesbians to marry. One justice, in a limited dissent, argued that the law should be overturned immediately rather than within a year.

That delay upset some activists, but both supporters and opponents of the ruling agreed there would be no way for Parliament to avoid approving the required amendments to the law.

"We have to accept that," said Efrem Tresoldi, a spokesman for the Southern African Catholic Bishops' Conference, speaking from Pretoria. He added that the church would continue to lobby against same-sex marriages on moral grounds.

"The church respects that people have certain sexual orientations, but we will never accept speaking in the same breath of same-sex unions and heterosexual marriage," Tresoldi said.

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