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Joint Working Group's response to passing of Civil Union Act


November 14, 2006

CAPE TOWN — The Joint Working Group (JWG), a national network of 17 lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) organisations, welcomes the historic step taken by Parliament to allow lesbian and gay people the choice to get married. Unlike earlier versions of the Civil Union Bill, the statute that has been passed no longer creates a separate category for lesbian and gay people exclusively but rather broadens the institution of marriage to include same-sex couples. In keeping with the transformation of our society from one based on unfair discrimination and exclusion to one based on equality and dignity for all, our elected representatives have signaled their strong commitment to ensuring that the values of our Constitution are made real for all people irrespective of their sexual orientation.

Speaking on behalf of the Joint Working Group, Fikile Vilakazi stated: “In large part, the Act signals a rejection of previous attempts to render lesbian and gay people as second-class citizens. It demonstrates powerfully the commitment of our law-makers to ensuring that all human beings are treated with dignity”.

Whilst welcoming the spirit of the Act, the Joint Working Group still believes that there is no need for a separate piece of legislation existing alongside the current Marriage Act. A parallel administrative system for the two statutes only increases the burden on state machinery and is likely to lead to confusion. In addition, it continues to reinforce the notion that there is a need to separate same-sex couples from other marriage forms, in some way. As David Bilchitz, Chairperson Jewish Outlook, notes: “There is no rational reason for allowing same-sex couples only to be married under the Civil Union Bill and not the Marriage Act. We urge government to rationalize our marriage laws and create one legal regime for all in South Africa”.

The Joint Working Group asserts that at least one section in the Civil Union Act is unconstitutional and vulnerable to legal challenge. Section 6 allows civil marriage officers to object to marrying lesbian and gay people on the grounds of conscience. Melanie Judge, Programme Manager of OUT LGBT Well-being, states: “We have no objection to religious denominations only marrying people according to the dictates of their faith. We do, however, object strongly to allowing civil marriage officers to decide who they will marry and who they won’t. This is particularly problematic when the basis for exercising conscience is limited to sexual orientation”

Although, we welcome the fact that domestic partnerships will be regulated separately to marriage, the Joint Working Group urges government to act speedily to pass legislation that protects individuals who, for reason of choice or circumstance, are not able to access the legal benefits of marriage.

The process of deliberation surrounding the Civil Union Bill has shown that many South Africans harbour deep prejudice and intolerance against lesbian and gay people. Many people have shown their failure to understand the separation of religion and state and even to understand the fundamental rights and values of our Constitution. The Joint Working Group calls on the government to take a leadership role and to develop public education programmes. Such programmes should be aimed at deepening the commitment of all South Africans to honouring and embracing diversity whether it be in relation to race, gender or sexual orientation. The Joint Working Group pledges its commitment to working with government and all other stakeholders towards this end. For, we believe that equality does not exist on a sliding scale: it either exists for all or for none. – Issued by the Joint Working Group


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