The SA Human Rights Commission (SAHRC) believes its case against the owners of the Beloftebos wedding venue is important enough to be heard by a full bench in the Western Cape High Court, where it launched a court application on Monday.
“This is obviously a case that will not only be applicable to wedding venues,” commissioner André Gaum said.
“It will be about unfair discrimination, specifically based on sexual orientation. It will be applicable to all businesses.”
The SAHRC launched its application in the Equality Court after several complaints were received, it said. The Chapter 9 intuition said it viewed the venue’s conduct as unconstitutional as one could not, on the basis of religious beliefs, discriminate against the sexual orientation of others.
In January, Megan Watling and Sasha-Lee Heekes wanted to book the venue in Stanford for their wedding reception, planned for 2021. It was on their final list of venues which a family friend had recommended.
The venue ignored them when they first wrote to them about the booking, so Watling phoned it. After that, they sent her an email telling them they did not host same-sex couples’ weddings based on religious grounds.
Beloftebos referred the couple to a statement, which was first posted on its website on August 4, 2017, when it turned down another couple, Alexandra Thorne and Alex Lu, who had also taken the matter to the SAHRC.
The principle, Gaum said, was one could not, through the right to freedom of religion and religious belief, discriminate unfairly against others on prohibitive grounds.
“That will be our very strong argument. The goods, services as well as facilities of Beloftebos – the operation of that business – is not a tenet of the owners’ religion as such. Rather, we have a situation here where their religion informs how they actually do business,” he added.
“It’s never a question of rights trumping each other. Rights have to be weighed up and often the courts limit certain rights to protect others or to make sure that other rights are not violated. This is a case in point as far as we are concerned.”
Beloftebos’ owners would have to prove that their conduct was not unfair, Gaum said
The SAHRC would request the court to declare that Beloftebos and its owners are “in breach of their obligation not to discriminate unfairly”, to restrain the venue and its owners from continuing to apply the blanket policy of excluding same-sex couples from the venue based on their religious beliefs, and that the owners of the venue are ordered to apologise to the affected couples”.
Similar cases have been pursued by the SAHRC but were heard in lower courts, Gaum said.
“Magistrate’s courts do not set precedent. That is why we thought this is the perfect case to take to a high court sitting as the equality court so that we can have binding precedent across the spectrum.”
He said Watling and Heekes would be bringing an application in their own names, but that the SAHRC would request that the judge president consolidate the matter.
Beloftebos, through Freedom of Religion South Africa (FOR SA), said it had been informed through the media of the SAHRC’s intention of taking the case to the Equality Court.
According to the non-profit Christian organisation, Beloftebos’ decision not to organise and host same-sex weddings was because of the owners’ “deeply held religious convictions that marriage is a sacred covenant between a man and a woman in the presence of God, as well as a symbolic picture of the love and commitment between Christ [as the bridegroom) and His church [the bride]”.
It added they were therefore not unfairly discriminating against anyone for who they loved, or how they loved, saying they welcomed everyone equally to their venue and would happily organise a birthday party, an office year-end celebration or any similar event for a same-sex couple.
“The owners do believe, however – based on the constitutional right to religious freedom and belief, that they should be allowed to differentiate between the events and activities that they are willing to facilitate on their property.
“For example, because of their religious beliefs, they would also decline to host a Halloween party regardless of who requested it.
“If the court decides against Beloftebos and forces them to participate in and celebrate events that violate their conscience, religion and belief, then every supplier of goods and service provider in South Africa will equally be forced to accept work that they may fundamentally disagree with,” FOR SA’s statement said.