It has just come to our attention that Ecclesia de Lange (“De Lange”), the lesbian minister who was “discontinued from the Ministry of the  [Methodist] Church [of South Africa]” following her announcement that she intended to marry her same-sex partner (as she later did) in 2010, has referred her case to the Constitutional Court, the highest court in South Africa with the final say on matters of constitutional importance.

This will be a landmark case that could potentially have very serious and far-reaching consequences for the Church in South Africa. Up to now, our Courts have recognised the autonomy of the Church to govern her internal affairs and have followed a “hands-off” approach to matters of religious doctrine. It will now be up to the Constitutional Court to say whether this still applies, or whether the Court can interfere in matters of religious doctrine and potentially find biblical doctrines, beliefs and practices to be unconstitutional (on the basis that, for e.g. they violate the right not to be unfairly discriminated against on the ground of sexual orientation).

Freedom of Religion South Africa (FOR SA) has been in contact with the attorneys for the Methodist Church this morning, who confirmed that the Methodist Church has now filed its papers (in opposition to De Lange’s appeal) with the Constitutional Court and that they are now awaiting the enrolment of the case by the Chief Justice on the roll of the Constitutional Court or such other directive as the learned Justice may deem fit to issue.

FOR SA is also in the process of obtaining copies of the court papers filed to date, and will inform the public of the issues on appeal and the developments in the case as soon as it is in a position to do so. It may very well be necessary for the Church in South Africa to rally behind the Methodist Church to protect the principle of religious freedom and the autonomy of the church in South Africa to govern her own affairs. To this end, we call upon churches who have not yet signed up as members of FOR SA (as an organisation that actively works to protect and promote religious rights and the autonomy of the Church in SA), to do so without delay!

De Lange’s appeal to the Constitutional Court follows the decision by the Supreme Court of Appeal (SCA) in September last year, that “… a proper respect for freedom of religion precludes our courts from pronouncing on matters of religious doctrine, which fall within the exclusive realm of the Church”. According to the SCA, the determination of who is morally and religiously fit to conduct pastoral duties or who should be excluded for non-conformity with the dictates of the religion, fall within the core of religious functions. As such, the matter should be left for determination by the church domestically and without interference by a court. (For more information about the facts of the case and the SCA’s decision, see FOR SA’s earlier article in Gateway News – http://gatewaynews.co.za/sca-rules-in-favour-of-religious-rights-church-autonomy-in-gay-minister-ousting-appeal/)

For more information about FOR SA, to join the organisation and/or to sign up to its newsletter, visit www.forsa.org.za For updates on freedom of religion and related issues, follow our Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/FreedomOfReligionSA

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