The Dutch Reformed Church (DRC) is being taken to court after it went back on its decision to allow same-sex unions.
It came as a surprise when, in 2015, the usually conservative church announced it would approve same-sex marriages and would allow ministers who identified as homosexual to be ordained. This came after 64% of its governing body voted in favour of the move.
But the decision was overturned a year later. The church explained it, saying: “Marriage was instituted by God as a sacred and lifelong union between one man and one woman and that any sexual intercourse outside such a solid formal marital relationship does not meet Christian guidelines.”
This about-turn was unacceptable to 11 of the DRC’s members and theologians, so they launched a civil case against the church.
Laurie Gaum, one of the members of the group, said in a statement: “We believe this case provides a unique opportunity to move the stalemate regarding [queer] rights and religious denominations forward in South Africa and on the continent.”
The court case has invigorated activists who want to make the church a more equal organisation. On campuses, some of this energy has been put into #WhyDiscriminate.
Farren Watt, one of the small but vocal group of students behind this campaign, said seeing the discrimination her gay brother faced was one of the main reasons she decided to study theology.
“I took the decision to stand with my brother, and others like him, in solidarity. Because how are we going to preach on Sundays about inclusivity and everybody being granted mercy, but that mercy is really only for certain people?”
The 23-year-old is doing her master’s in theology at the University of Stellenbosch.
Ashwin Thyssen, another of the students driving #WhyDiscriminate, said he decided to pursue his dream of becoming a minister despite the church’s stance on queer relationships.
He came out as gay to his fellow parishioners, even with the possibility that it might mean that he could not enter the ministry. There was little choice because “I am a staunch social justice activist.”
Some people in his church and fellow theology students have approached Thyssen to offer their support but only do so in private.
Watt said there was a political cost to supporting their stance. “Students struggle to talk about this because this has a big influence on those going into ministry and get a calling from a church, because it is not accepted in church.”
Gaum said he was “thankful” for the work the students were doing. “[They] are capturing the broader issue at play. The court case is just part of a dream that younger people are better at capturing and dreaming than older generations: an inclusive community and the church as … the bearer of the good news of inclusivity and nondiscrimination.”
The fight is not confined within the church’s walls. A 2016 report by the Other Foundation, When Faith Does Violence: Re-imagining Engagement between Churches and LGBTI Groups on Homophobia in Africa, found that “sexuality has become a new site of struggle and [that] the ‘old’ theology does not fit, as it is founded on heteropatriarchy”.
Gerald West, one of its authors, is a professor at the University of KwaZulu-Natal’s school of religion, philosophy and classics. He said: “Most LGBTI [lesbian, gay, bisexual, transsexual and intersex] people in South Africa have some kind of faith commitment. In almost every case their faith has failed them, stigmatising and condemning them.”
This means people first have to recognise that their faith is not neutral. Instead, it will have been created in a world dominated by heterosexual men. “Our faith traditions and our sacred texts are sites of struggle, so we cannot avoid religion in dealing with sexuality.”
It will be up to the court to decide whether the DRC was right to change its stance. The case will be heard on August 21.
Carl Collison is the Other Foundation’s Rainbow Fellow at the M&G