Many same sex couples can now breathe a sigh of relief as Section 6 of the Civil Union Act 17 of 2006, which previously allowed a marriage officer to inform the Home Affairs Minister of his or her objection to officiate same-sex unions on the grounds of conscience, religion or belief, now prohibits marriage officers or Magistrates from refusing to solemnise a civil union between same-sex couples.
The Civil Union Amendments Bill which has been signed into law by the presidency, comes into immediate effect. In terms of the new legislature, the Home Affairs Minister must ensure that there is a marriage officer available to solemnise a civil union at every office. As part of the amended Bill, the Department of Home Affairs will be given a transitional period of 24 months within which to train those officials who had previously been granted an exception by the Minister. Whilst the transitional period is in effect, a marriage officer, other than those granted exemption, must be available to solemnise a civil union at every Department of Home Affairs office to ensure that no same-sex couple is turned away.
Unsurprisingly, the amendment Bill has received criticism from some religious organizations. The Christian non-profit organisation, Freedom of Religion South Africa has for example, condemned the amendment stating that same has failed to replace the right of marriage officers to solemnising same sex marriages, with another remedy that meets constitutional standards. Effectively the argument is that there is no provision within the amended Bill which provides an alternate legal arrangement for marriage officers to have their fundamental rights respected and protected, as required by the Constitution.
There will unfortunately always be those for and against same-sex marriage, but for the many thousands of same-sex couples, the amended BiIll could not have come sooner. The Bill is definitely a step in the right direction and will hopefully have the desired outcome in eliminating existing discrimination against same-sex marriages or relationships within South Africa.
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Author – Kate Bailey – Hill