Fired minister and Methodist church battle over gay marriage

2013-05-22 00:00

CAPE TOWN — The church is debating the contentious issue of gay marriages and it is not up to an individual — like Ecclesia de Lange — to force the church to take a decision. Nor should the courts interfere in church matters.

So said advocate Isabel Goodman, for the Methodist Church, in the Western Cape High Court yesterday.

De Lange (43), a minister in the church, was discontinued as a minister in 2010 after she married a female partner.

This meant she did not lose her position, but she could not exercise any ministerial powers and did not receive financial compensation.

The church said it recognised only heterosexual marriages.

De Lange was a minister for the Methodist congregations of Brackenfell and Windsor Park in Cape Town. She has meanwhile divorced her partner.

She decided to take her discontinuation to court as it affected many more people than just herself.

She asked the court to set aside the church’s decision, to be re-instated and to be compensated retrospectively, and to bypass the arbitration process proposed by the church.

Judge Anton Veldhuizen reserved judgment.

Advocate Annemarie de Vos SC, for De Lange, argued that the Methodist church did not have a rule prohibiting its members or ministers from marrying someone of the same sex.

She said the church could put in place a rule, but must be able to defend it.

“The decision by the church … was constitutionally unfair.

“As long as there is no specific rule by the church forbidding same-sex marriages, she’s entitled to enter into a marriage.

“How do they justify discrimination if they don’t know it’s right or wrong? … You can’t discriminate if you can’t decide.”

The church’s legal team argued it had a rule preventing any of its members from taking a “positive step” towards same-sex marriages, until a final policy decision had been made on the sensitive matter.

Goodman said the church’s conference had been grappling with whether to recognise same-sex marriages since 2000.

She said De Lange breached the oath she took to accept and obey the conference’s decision. She had known such a rule existed by being a member and a minister, yet chose to contravene it anyway.

The church asked for the matter to be referred for arbitration instead of being considered by a court.

De Vos contended the arbitration agreement would be one-sided as the arbitrator was a member of the church.

Goodman said the church had a doctrine and rules to protect the church and its congregations.

The church was not against gay members or gay ministers. Marriage was, however, an institution of cardinal importance in the church and was governed by strict rules.

“A minister who is involved in divorce proceedings is immediately suspended pending an investigation and possible disciplinary proceedings …

“In those circumstances an order of reinstatement is futile, and impedes the church’s ability to discipline its ministers,” Goodman said.

Outside the court, De Lange said she had peace in her heart and had high hopes for the court’s decision.

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