South Africa: Churches Bar Gay Marriages

Cape Town, South Africa - Six months after gay marriages were legalised, at least four leading denominations are refusing to conduct same-sex unions.

The national leadership of the Anglican Church, as well as the provincial offices of the Catholic Church, Baptist Church and Presbyterian Church, all confirmed their clergy were not allowed to officiate at or bless gay marriages.

The Methodist Church - which has been embroiled in a row with 19 of its ministers over whether to conduct civil unions - has an interim policy that prohibits gay marriages in its churches.

According to the Civil Union Act, if a religious institution does not wish to conduct civil unions, it must submit a letter to Home Affairs Minister Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula explaining why.

The Department of Home Affairs recently told the Cape Argus that six Christian denominations had submitted letters, but department spokesman Mantshele Tau could not provide updated figures yesterday.

Bishop David Beetge, Dean of the (Anglican) Church of the Province of Southern Africa, said the church had notified the Department of Home Affairs of its policy on gay marriages.

"We have informed the government that we are not in a position to bless civil unions and have made it open and clear to the government and our congregation about our policy," he said.

The Presbyterian Church moderator in the Western Cape, the Rev Rod Botsis, said the church's general assembly had decided not to allow gay marriages in the church.

The Rev Brian Wood, of the Cape Town Baptist Church, said that the church had decided not to conduct same-sex marriages as they were "contrary to scripture".

"Everybody is welcome at the church irrespective of their background or creed. However, on the topic of gay marriages, we cannot condone it, as God has sanctioned marriage as a heterosexual relationship between a natural man and a natural woman," he said.

The Western Cape Catholic Church spokesman, Andrew Borello, confirmed the church's national assembly had decided not to recognise same-sex unions.

Once a church's letter of explanation is accepted by Mapisa-Nqakula, an individual minister of that denomination cannot apply for a marriage licence independently.

But 19 Methodist Church ministers have challenged their church's policy by requesting permission to bless same-sex unions.

The Cape of Good Hope Meth-odist Church minister, the Rev Timothy Attwell, said the difference of opinion had "given rise to controversy in the church", but that the executive, including representatives from the church's 12 districts, would make a final decision on the matter eventually.

South Africa's largest activist group for gay and lesbian rights, the Triangle Project, said it was aware of the stance many churches had taken on same-sex unions.

On the eve of the International Day against Homophobia today, spokesman Vista Kalipa said the group had received a number of calls from disappointed couples who had resorted to marrying at Home Affairs after they were turned away by their churches.

"Technically, religious institutions do have the right not to conduct civil unions," he said.

But the stance of the churches against homosexuality went back "a long way".

"It's not just a gay rights issue any more, it has become a human rights issue," he said.

HRC head Jody Kollapen said the government and churches should consider allowing individual ministers to register under the Civil Union Act.

"That way, people have the option of marrying in association with their religious institution."