Gender Commission says Beloftebos is “weaponising” freedom of religion


Beloftebos owners, Andries and Coia de Villiers (YouTube)

The same-sex couple turned away by the Beloftebos wedding venue have welcomed new court papers filed by the Commission on Gender Equality (CGE) in their support.

On 28 September, the CGE filed an answering affidavit in the ongoing Equality Court discrimination case against the Western Cape venue, initiated by the SA Human Rights Commission in March.

The Christian owners, Coia and Andries de Villiers, have been accused of violating the Promotion of Equality and Prevention of Unfair Discrimination Act (PEPUDA or the Equality Act) by refusing to allow same-sex weddings on the premises because of their religious belief.

The de Villiers have defended their right to discriminate through a counter-application on the SAHRC and other parties in which they have asked the court to allow them to continue to turn away same-sex couples and to declare the relevant section of PEPUDA “unconstitutionally invalid.”

In the CGE’s affidavit, the commission asserts that the owners’ “rights to freedom of religion do not justify setting aside section 14 of the Equality Act.”

The CGE argues that the owners’ religious beliefs are a private matter and cannot be brought into their provision of services to the public. “The Beleftobos respondents’ freedom of religion does not extend to their business,” states the commission, adding that the exercise of “their freedom of religion is not intrinsically linked to the provision of services and goods.”

The CGE pointed out that there is no expectation or demand that the owners themselves solemnise same-sex weddings, only that they provide a venue and “ancillary” related services such as catering and decor. In addition, the CGE believes that the owners are guilty of “selective interpretation and application of religious scriptures or beliefs,” and noted that they have in the past hosted Muslim and Jewish wedding ceremonies as well as those of divorcees.

“The harm suffered is not exclusively that of the same-sex couple who are discriminated against but against the LGBTQIA+ community at large,” wrote the CGE. “The broader social harm caused by the hosting policy is that it normalises the unfair discrimination against same-sex couples by weaponising the freedom of religion in the rendering of commercial services.”

Turned away by Beloftebos: Sasha-Lee Heekes and Megan Watling on their engagement day

The commission warned that should the court declare section 14 of the Equality Act unconstitutional this “would perpetuate systemic inequalities suffered by LGBTQIA+ people in South Africa” and “create a tool for people to discriminate unfairly in the conduct of business citing freedom of religion.”

Megan Watling and Sasha-Lee Heekes, who were refused service by Beloftebos in January, have asked the court to order the venue to stop rejecting same-sex couples, to apologise and to pay R2 million in damages to be donated to a charity.

The couple welcomed the CGE’s affidavit. They said in a statement that they “agree wholeheartedly with the CGE that the professed Christian principles of the Beloftebos wedding venue is a fig leaf for unfair and unlawful discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation.” The women added that “This is an anathema to the true principles of Christianity upheld by the majority of Christians in South Africa.”

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