Civil Union Bill gets committee's go-ahead

The Civil Union Amendment Bill recently got the go ahead from Parliament’s Portfolio Committee on Home Affairs when it recently adopted a motion of desirability on amending the Civil Union Act. many hailed the Act passed in 2006, as a big victory for the LGBTQ-community as it extended marriage rights, albeit in the form of a civil union, to same-sex couples. The euphoria over the Act was short-lived as it did not necessarily mean a happily ever after for many same-sex couples who got turned away from certain branches of the Department of Home Affairs.

All political parties save for the ACDP, supported the proposed amendment of schedule 6 of the Act. According to this schedule marriage officers employed in the public service and based on their personal and religious beliefs cannot be compelled to solemnise a civil union. In terms of the Act these marriage officers (magistrates and designated officials in the Department of Home Affairs) can raise their objections in writing to the minister and would so not be “compelled to solemnise such [a] civil union”.

Now, 12 years later, this may change with the Civil Union Amendment Bill that was introduced by Cope MP Deidre Carter as a Private Members’ Bill earlier this year. Parliament’s Portfolio Committee on Home Affairs adopted a motion of desirability for this Private Members’ Bill which means the committee in principle agrees with the need for legislative amendments and the Bill will now go through the Parliamentary process which will include opportunities for public input. Repealing this schedule will also affect other pieces of legislation which the committee will deal with in their deliberations.

For some the road to Carter’s Private Members’ Bill was a long and often humiliating one. For Sue* and Lia* it started off by being snubbed by a wedding venue Schoongezicht in Paarl. After the couple went for a viewing and discussed dates and prices for the venue they asked whether the venue was “gay-friendly”. The management told them it most certainly is not. Sue recalled the moment as “incredibly humiliating”.

That was only the start of their troubles.

Sue told Parlybeat officials sent her from pillar to post when she tried to get a Home Affairs branch where they could get married. She approached the Stellenbosch branch where an official just told her we do not do that here. “They told me to go to Bellville. There nobody assisted me, and I was sent from the one official to another. After an hour, I just gave up and left. The whole situation left me discouraged and angry. At the Stellenbosch offices I felt like a second-class citizen,” she says. “In Bellville I insisted to speak to someone in charge but the official told me the person was on a lunch break. I asked for a telephone number and the same official told me they do not give out telephone numbers. I only got the general email address. This was just after our incident at Schoongezicht and by then I was so deflated because there already I learnt complaining gets you nowhere anyway.”

For the longest time according to Sue, she never wanted to get married. “I always maintained I don’t need papers to show who I love but it was important to Lia. As a Catholic, getting married was important to her but also because she feared that should something happen to either of us, our families would keep us from money and property and funeral arrangements.” Sue refer to her parents and sister as “gay hating”. She explains: “Both Lia and I have friends who lost loved ones whose families forced them to stand aside. Lia did not want that to happen to us.”

Last year, then Minister of Home Affairs Hlengiwe Mkhize in a statement confirmed there are 1 130 designated marriage officers in her department and 421 of them have applied for exemption. On couples being “turned away” she said it does not mean the service is not offered in many Home Affairs offices but that exemptions enable the department to at least plan better. She said her department prepared a list of offices with marriage officers willing to solemnise same-sex marriages to inform people about which offices to visit. However, in response to a parliamentary question in 2013, the then Home Affairs minister Naledi Pandor, said “all offices of the department of Home Affairs are required to have at least one marriage officer to perform same-sex marriages”. Pandor said in offices where officials applied for exemption, the department must deploy a marriage officer willing to solemnise the civil union.

This however, as couples like Sue and Lia can attest, has not happened. After their experience in Stellenbosch and Bellville, Sue got hold of a list of Home Affairs branches where civil unions are solemnised. “That is how we ended up at the Paarl branch where everything was done ‘matter of factly’ and our booking was fast and easy.” On the day of their wedding at the Paarl office, they still had some trouble. “The official at the door just looked at us and said we must wait outside – in the deaths and marriages que. I told him we will be late and that he must let us in, but he wouldn’t budge. It was only when another couple arrived, that he let us in. I just got that feeling that he was discriminating against us because he was much happier to oblige when the straight couple showed up.” Once they were inside the experience was “a real joy”, Sue recalls. The marriage officer even asked us if we had personal vows. Our daughters were there, and she even waited for us to take pictures, smiled and congratulated us after. It felt like a real wedding.”

According to Sue it is a disgrace that civil servants can refuse to solemnise same-sex marriages based on their religious convictions. “They are employed by the government and not the church. And it is the government’s law that prohibits discrimination based on race, sex or sexual preferences. Does this the mean Christians can refuse to solemnise atheists’ weddings or that racists can refuse to solemnise marriages of black couples? So why must it be so difficult for gay and trans people to just do something as common as marry?” Sue insists it is better to “surround yourself with positive energy than having to deal with this constant awareness of hatred and this feeling of being downgraded to a second-grade citizen”. “As if we are not just normal human beings.”

Attempts to get comment from some of the marriage officers were unsuccessful. Both Nehawu and the Public Service Association representing most of these officials, had mixed reactions over the proposed amendment. Labour Relations officer at the PSA Motjatji Maila, told ParlyBeat they already consulted with their members. “They were not happy with it. The PSA’s view on the amendment is that marriage officers should be allowed to enjoy their constitutional right by exercising their conscience, religion and belief to solemnize a civil union between persons of the same-sex.” Cosatu and Nehawu however supports the amendment. Cosatu coordinator at Parliament Matthew Parks, told ParlyBeat they support the Bill as it is ‘in line with the values of the constitution”. “Public servants serve the public. They do not have the right to choose which members of the public to serve as that would be discrimination.”

The Bill will now be advertised to get public input.

*The couple asked for just first names to be used.

By Alicestine October

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