By SHARON LaFRANIERE
Published: November 14, 2006
JOHANNESBURG, Nov. 14 — South Africa’s Parliament overwhelmingly voted today to legalize same-sex marriages, making the nation the first in Africa and the fifth in the world to remove legal barriers to gay and lesbian unions, according to activists.The legislature voted after the nation’s highest court ruled that South Africa’s marriages statutes violated the constitution’s guarantee of equal rights. The court gave the government a year to amend the legal definition of marriage. That deadline expires in two weeks.Melanie Judge, program manager for OUT, a gay rights advocacy group, noted that the Netherlands, Belgium, Spain and Canada were the only other countries to allow same-sex marriages nationwide. In most African nations, she said, homosexuality is still treated as a crime. Some penalties are stiffer than those for rape or murder..Ms. Judge credited South Africa’s liberal constitution with forcing change.“This has been a litmus test of our constitutional values,” she said in a telephone interview. “What does equality really mean? What does it look like? Equality does not exist on a sliding scale.”Religious groups and traditional leaders strenuously opposed the measure, arguing that if necessary the constitution should be amended to outlaw same-sex unions. But the ruling African National Congress virtually demanded that lawmakers support the bill.Despite deep divisions within the party, the measure passed 230 to 41. It must now be approved by the Council of Provinces, a quasi-federal chamber, and be signed the president to become law.Vytjie Mentor, the party’s caucus chairman, told the South African newspaper The Sunday Independent earlier this month that he expected legislators belonging to the African National Congress to vote for the measure, regardless of their personal views.There is “no such thing as a free vote or a vote of conscience,” he said. “How do you give someone permission to discriminate in the name of the A.N.C.? How do you allow for someone to vote against the constitution and the policies of the A.N.C., which is antidiscrimination?”The new law allows both heterosexual and same-sex couples to register their unions either as marriages or civil partnerships. But in a concession to critics, it also allows civil officers to refuse to marry same-sex couples on the basis on conscience. Ms. Judge, the gay rights advocate, predicted that provision will be challenged in court.“We can’t be in the situation where civil officers can decide who they want to marry and who they don’t want to marry,” she said. “They aren’t able to refuse to marry a black person and a white person. This is unconstitutional.”
Thursday, November 16, 2006 - Web posted at 7:45:24 GMT
SA approves same-sex unions
SOUTH Africa's parliament has voted to legalise same-sex weddings - the first African country to approve such unions.
The controversial Civil Union bill was passed by 230 votes to 41.
The legislation was introduced after the Constitutional Court ruled last year that the existing laws discriminated against homosexuals.
The ruling African National Congress ordered all MPs to turn up and vote for the bill, despite the opposition of church and traditional leaders.
The bill provides for the "voluntary union of two persons, which is solemnised and registered by either a marriage or civil union".
The existing Marriage Act defines a marriage as a "union between a man and a woman".
During the debate before the vote, Home Affairs Minister Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula told MPs: "In breaking with our past...
we need to fight and resist all forms of discrimination and prejudice, including homophobia."
But, Cardinal Wilfrid Napier, president of the South African Catholic Bishops' Conference, said the bill would be a blow against democracy.
"The impression we got is that there is overwhelming opposition to this bill from people throughout South Africa," he told South Africa's Daily News before the vote.
African Christian Democratic Party leader Reverend Kenneth Meshoe told MPs that those who voted for same-sex marriages would face divine wrath.
However, some gay rights activists have also criticised the bill, because it gives officials the right not to perform same-sex wedding ceremonies if this would conflict with their "conscience, religion and belief".
In the face of such strong feelings, the ANC had issued a three-line whip, instructing all MPs to vote in favour of the bill.
The ANC has a huge majority in parliament.
Last year, the Constitutional Court gave the government until December 1, 2006 to legalise same-sex weddings, after gay rights activists took the issue to court.
The ruling was based on the constitution, which was the first in the world specifically to outlaw discrimination on the grounds of sexual preference.
This is unusual in Africa where homosexuality is largely taboo - notably in its neighbour Zimbabwe.