By Melanie Nathan, October 03, 2014.
The Supreme Court of Appeals in Bloemfontein, South Africa, has dismissed an appeal by the Methodist minister who had been fired for marrying her same-sex partner. The Court ruled that courts should not be expected to decide on internal religious matters.
Back in March 2011, I was invited to keynote and participate in Cape Town Pride. I met Rev. Ecclessia De Lange. She had just been fired from her job as a Minister with the Methodist Church of South Africa (MCSA) for marrying her same-sex partner. I was in South Africa to speak about the beauty of its Constitution and how South Africa’s law stood at the helm, in a world where LGBT rights were not only denied, but where it was criminalized.
Ecclessia, despite her upset at being fired, was filled with hope. Her hope was that she would be protected by the South African Constitution, as she determined to fight her case all the way to a win in the highest Court in the land, if need be. Now those hopes are dashed and she must rely on the internal mechanism of a Church deeply rooted in anti-gay sentiment. South Africa’s all inclusive Constitution and the independent Courts that protect it, failed to come to Ecclessia’s rescue.
This is a sad day for South African legal precedent and indeed a devastating day for the Constitution. It is also a sad day for what ought to be the true intent of religious freedoms – the ability to separate one’s right to access the civil law and its protections, from religion. And although the Court did not rule on the merits of the firing, it lost a critical opportunity to assert on the true meaning of South Africa’s constitutional freedoms.
Ecclessia has been fighting for more than four years to have her job reinstated after she was dismissed by MCSA . In August, the Supreme Court of Appeals heard her appeal against a June 2013 Cape Town High Court ruling forcing her back into arbitration with the Church.
De Lange argued that she should not be forced into internal Church arbitration, that the arbitration is biased because it is decided on by a member of a Church, and that it is pointless.
In its ruling, issued on Tuesday, the Court disagreed with De Lange on all her points.
Judge Visvanathan Ponnan wrote that there was a valid arbitration agreement between De Lange and the Church and that she should be bound by it. He further ruled that it was not unfair that the arbitrator is a member of the Church and that there is no support for her complaint of bias.
De Lange said:
“Judgement was handed down yesterday. It comes as no surprise that my Appeal was dismissed. The judgement is a very technical document. According to me the merits of the case doesn’t carry much weight, but more whether the Arbitration Act was applied correctly. The judges’ comments focus mainly on the legitimacy of the arbitration process and not whether I was treated unfairly or not.
My council and I are in the process of studying the document and will then decide on the way forward.
Thank you for your continued prayers and support”
South African LGBT rights activists are outraged at the ruling, even though the Court did not rule on the merits of the firing itself. Christina Engela of GLAAD South Africa noted her extreme disappointment in the Court:
“That’s where they are WRONG. It’s not an internal matter. The Methodist Church is in South Africa and is also governed by the Constitution. What they are doing is a violation of Individual human rights. This is a cop-out. Basically they are giving license to religious institutions to destroy human rights of their members – because they are saying to the victims “toe the line – or don’t come crying to us”. It’s a sickening abdication of authority by the Court system in South Africa.”
This Report from our friends at Mamba Online:
Judge Ponnan said that it was “entirely understandable” for the church to insist that “only those persons who are familiar with the rules, procedures and practices are appointed to the rather sensitive task of adjudicating disciplinary disputes.”
Most significantly, Ponnan supported the Church’s argument that the matter was “the kind of dispute that a secular court should avoid becoming entangled in…” and cited the Church’s right to freedom of religion.
Well wisher’s continue to show support, as one noted on Ecclessia’s Facebook page:
Read more about the case: