Wedding venues for hire to the public continue to turn away loving same-sex couples. The most recent case involves the Rosebank Union Church in Sandton. Once again, religious beliefs are being used as a justification for discrimination.
The large “non-denominational” church campus offers conference facilities as well as a secondary wedding chapel for hire, “set in the midst of gorgeous rose gardens, and complete with wedding bells and stained glass windows.”
Last month, Jacques de Villiers noticed a sign on William Nicol Drive promoting the venue and decided that it would be the perfect spot to marry his partner of six years, Johannes Van Graan.
He contacted the venue and explained to a woman called Yvette that it would be a civil union marriage and that the couple would use their own independent pastor. He was sent application forms, on which he noticed spaces to list the bride and groom. De Villiers scratched out “bride” and replaced it with “groom”.
He sent in the application, but didn’t get a response. When he phoned to follow up, he claims that Yvette apologised for the delay and promised to shortly send him invoicing details. A few hours later he was phoned by a man from the church.
“He said they were unfortunately unable to assist us because we are gay and that he went to the highest powers of the church and they don’t approve of it,” de Villiers told Mambaonline.
“I said, ‘but you are advertising that these facilities are available and we are using our own pastor.’ It’s not just a church, it’s a service that they are providing and they are discriminating against us,” he said. “Surely they don’t turn away gay people from their conference facilities?”
De Villiers added: “I’m not oblivious that there people against the gay community, but we are in Sandton, we are in Joburg. I was flabbergasted. I though people in the centre of Sandton would be more open-minded.”
The Rosebank Union Church confirmed to Mambaonline in an e-mail that “we decided not to allow Jacques de Villiers and his male partner to use our chapel for their wedding.”
The Rosebank Union Church chapel (source)
Executive Administrator Billy Hindshaw said that even though the church is non-denominational, “we are of the view that same-sex marriage is not in accordance with the Christian faith.”
He added: “Gay and lesbian people are members of our community, and as such we hope to welcome, help and extend hospitality to them as to others. However, our adherence to Christian beliefs and practices also has to be respected.”
On the LGBT community’s constitutional protection from discrimination, Hindshaw commented: “We respect the constitutional rights of all, including our own. We attempt to balance competing constitutional rights in a respectful manner.”
When it was pointed out that the church did not mention its exclusionary policy on either its website or its advertising, he stated that the church plans to “ensure that our policy is communicated in future.”
De Villiers said he has since found a gay-friendly wedding venue in Honeydew and that he and his partner will get married on 28 March.
Rosebank Union may be able to get away with its discriminatory stance because it’s a church, but the incident comes just weeks after Honeydew wedding venue Oakfield Farm, which is not a church, turned away a gay couple – also on religious grounds.
Mambaonline has confirmed that an earlier discrimination complaint against Oakfield Farm was lodged by a lesbian couple with the Commission for Gender Equality (CGE) last year, but a formal investigation never went ahead.
Mofihli Teleki, CGE Head of Communications, explained to Mambaonline that, “upon the intervention of the CGE, the matter was resolved amicably when the owner of the venue agreed to give access to the couple for their wedding and in essence the case was closed from that point.”
He urged anyone who feels they’ve been similarly discriminated against by Oakfield Farm to lodge a complaint with the commission.
A similar case filed by a same-sex couple against another venue with the SA Human Rights Commission (SAHRC) last year also failed to get off the ground after that couple dropped their complaint because the matter had become too personally disruptive.
“We cannot investigate if the complainants pull out,” said SAHRC Spokesperson Isaac Mangena, responding to concerns that little action is being taken against discriminatory venues. “It’s like a case of domestic abuse. If the complainant doesn’t cooperate you can’t blame the police.”
Taking action: Johann Viljoen & George van der Merwe
A third case, in which Johann Viljoen and his partner, George van der Merwe, were snubbed by the Sha-Mani Lodge venue in Alberton in August last year, shows some promise.
Viljoen told Mambaonline that, with the help of the Centre for Human Rights in Pretoria, he filed papers with the Equality Court at the Alberton Magistrates’ Court in January and is now awaiting a court date.
“At one stage we thought of leaving it and then I read about another case and I decided to pursue it for others to also go ahead and to nail these people. It’s not about their beliefs, it’s about being fair to everyone,” he said.
Sha-Mani Lodge had previously been found guilty of discrimination against a lesbian couple in 2012 by the Equality Court. It was fined R20,000 and agreed to in future allow gays and lesbians to use the venue. It was a promise it clearly failed to keep.
For more information on lodging complains with the SA Human Rights Commission or the Commission for Gender Equality visit their websites here and here.