A recent news article in the Citizen reported that a soon-to-be-wed gay couple was turned away at a wedding venue because of the religious beliefs of the owner who is a Christian.

(http://citizen.co.za/319347/gay-couple-turned-away-wedding-venue/).

The article has since gone viral and as a further result, the owner of Oakfield Farm in Gauteng has been bombarded with hate mail from gay activists making him out to be a homophobic hatemonger. One e-mail reads “you are disgusting, bigoted and [your actions] illegal … you can be sure I will be screaming for boycott of Oakfield farm until you are stopped”. In another e-mail, the owner is likened to “a bigoted Afrikaans farmer who kicks people off his land because you own the land”.

According to the owner of Oakfield Farm, he has been “absolutely shocked at the hate mail received, some of which is unspeakably aggressive with the most abusive language imaginable. How anybody can accuse me of breaking the law, with hate speech that does exactly what I am accused of, defies explanation.”

The owner explains that “Oakfield Farm has an unprecedented reputation of kindness, hospitality, warmth and honesty. We try as best as is humanly possible to demonstrate Christ’s commandment ‘to love our neighbour as ourselves’ to clients, guests and our staff alike. I do not believe that there is any trace of discrimination in any form, be it on the grounds of racial or sexual orientation at Oakfield Farm. We believe that everyone has inherent dignity that should be respected and protected … We do however stand firm in our faith. Our actions are determined not by any prejudice but by our religious beliefs and conscience.”

A string of attacks
Oakfield is the most recent in a string of attacks on Christian wedding venues and bed and breakfasts in South Africa. In the last year alone, Freedom of Religion South Africa (FOR SA) has assisted five wedding venues and one bed and breakfast who have come under fire for their religious convictions and belief.

In all these cases, the pattern has been virtually the same: The matter is reported to secular media who then tells the story with great sensation and often giving incomplete or incorrect information (as also happened in the case of the Citizen. It is not true, as stated in the subheading of the article, that the couple was turned away after they had already made a booking). Following the media frenzy, the (owner of) the venue should prepare to face a barrage of hate mail from gay activists accusing the venue of acting illegally and threatening to report the venue to the tourism bureau, to boycott the venue (by informing the public and/or its suppliers of its position), to take legal action against the venue or to otherwise shut it down. In many instances, the bullying includes abusive language and name-calling of the owner – all in an effort to apply pressure on the (owner of the) venue to give in to their demands and change its position (i.e. to change deeply held moral convictions, religion and belief).

Incidentally, the very same is happening in the United States of America, the United Kingdom and in Europe where not only wedding venues are targeted, but also wedding photographers, bakers and florists. Bound by their Christian conviction and Biblical belief that marriage is the holy union of one man and one woman in life-long covenant with each other, these persons find themselves unable to facilitate or participate in a “marriage” that is in direct opposition to what they believe to be God’s design for marriage. For them, to somehow have a hand in such a “marriage”, is to themselves sin against God and thereby potentially place their own salvation at risk.

To make it very clear: the issue is not that these venues, photographers, bakers and florists are not willing to make services available to gay clients – they are, provided that the particular request will not result in them violating their moral conscience, religion and belief. So, for example, while a Christian baker would (and in my opinion, should) have no problem baking a birthday cake for a person practising homosexuality (because there is no sin involved in having a birthday), the same baker may struggle to bake a wedding cake for that person (because of the baker’s personal conviction and belief that God does not approve of “gay weddings”, and would not be pleased with his/her decision to help the gay couple to do something that displeases Him either).

To make it very clear also: in no way do I suggest that every person who identifies as a member of the LGBTI community, is guilty of such hostility and hatred as has been spewed on Oakfield Farm and others. In fact, a number of LGBTI persons themselves have come out very strongly against this blatant intolerance of Christians by gay activists.

The legal position in SA, and the proposed hate crimes legislation
I will not attempt to, in this article, explain in any great detail the current legal position (which is rather technical and complex). Christian wedding venues and other service providers potentially at risk, are best advised to seek legal advice with regard to their terms and conditions of service and the like so as to best protect themselves from legal action or potential legal liability.

Suffice to say that, while it is correct (as the gay activists so frequently remind us) that the Constitution guarantees the right not to be unfairly discriminated against on the ground of one’s sexual orientation, it is also fact that the Constitution guarantees the right not to be unfairly discriminated against on grounds of one’s conscience, religion and belief (a fact which the same group almost always, perhaps ignorantly but perhaps conveniently, seems to overlook). In addition, the Constitution specifically guarantees the right to freedom of conscience, religion and belief.

For this reason and until the Court decides otherwise, it cannot simply be assumed or categorically stated that Christian venues are acting illegally in refusing, for reasons of conscience, religion and belief, to host same-sex ceremonies at their venues.

It is of course difficult to predict what the Court will find, should it be asked to determine the “wedding venue” scenario and perhaps the time is not far off. Increasingly, pastors, Christian ministries, businesses and schools in South Africa are finding themselves in front of government commissions and the courts, where they have to defend their right to believe, preach and live their lives according to the Word of God. While our Constitution protects freedom of conscience, religion and belief, no right is absolute and may be restricted by the Court’s protection or favouring of another right (for e.g. the right not to be discriminated against on the basis of sexual orientation) in a particular instance.

Of particular concern also in this context, is the proposed hate crimes legislation that is currently being prepared by the Department of Justice and Constitutional Development (DoJ&CD). In terms of this legislation, where a crime (e.g. murder, rape, assault, damage to property) is committed against an individual because of the prejudice that the perpetrator holds against an entire group of people (e.g. against LGBTI people), such crime will be considered a “hate crime”.

In his address to the Hate Crimes Working Group (HCWG) on February 11, 2015, which was attended by FOR SA, the Hon Deputy Minister of the DoJ&CD made it clear that they “envisage that the legislation will however be highly contentious because of the hate speech provisions therein” (which are expected to go much further than the current prohibitions on hate speech in the Constitution and equality legislation). According to the Deputy Minister, “the tension between hate speech and freedom of speech will be the fundamental issue”.

As an organisation that actively works to protect and promote freedom of religion and the autonomy of the Church in South Africa, FOR SA will keep its eye on this proposed legislation to ensure that as Christians, we remain free to believe, preach and live our lives according to the Word of God and that it does not become a crime or “hate speech” to do so. On the other hand, one can only hope that the proposed legislation will have the effect also of discouraging “hate speech” against Christians by persons holding to a different world view.

Recent resolution by Council of Europe
It is significant that on January 29, 2015, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe adopted a resolution “tackling intolerance and discrimination in Europe with a special focus on Christians”.

The resolution specifically acknowledges that intolerance and discrimination is inflicted to people also belonging to majority religious groups (Christianity), and that reasonable accommodation of religious conscience, beliefs and practices (including in the workplace) is a good way forward. Interestingly, the resolution also makes the point that the media should be encouraged to avoid negative stereotyping (of Christians).

The resolution comes in the wake of cases such as that of Peter and Hazelmary Bull, a Christian couple who were sued as a result of their policy to only allow heterosexual married couples to share a double bed at their guesthouse in Cornwall, United Kingdom. (For more information about the resolution, see http://mailman.pxldsk.com/wb.php?p=1lo/1kv/rs/y3/se/rs)

South Africa would do well to follow the example of Europe and to acknowledge that the same anti-Christian bias that is pervading other countries in the West, is sweeping our country and to put legislative measures in place to better protect freedom of conscience, religion and belief in South Africa. As stated in the Preamble to our Constitution, “South Africa belongs to all who live in it, united in our diversity”.

It is imperative that the remarkable degree of religious tolerance in South Africa be preserved and promoted, and not destroyed by the self-interests of a few activist individuals.

For more information about FOR SA, to subscribe to its newsletter and/or to join the organisation at no cost, visit www.forsa.org.za. For updates on FOR SA or religious freedom issue, also visit our Facebook page at  https://www.facebook.com/FreedomOfReligionSA