A group of religious bodies, the Alliance Defending the Autonomy of Churches in South Africa (Adacsa), has applied to the high court in Pretoria for “clarity” on its decision, made in March, to overturn the NG Kerk’s policy on queer clergy.
The court overturned the policy that queer clergy have to be celibate and that barred the church’s clergy from officiating at same-sex marriages. It found that the policy — adopted in 2016 — amounted to unfair discrimination and an impairment of dignity.
But Adacsa says the judgment is ambiguous. It wants clarity about “whether the 2016 decision … was reviewed and set aside only on procedural grounds … or whether the decision taken was also found to be in violation of the Constitution”.
According to its website, Adacsa aims to “defend the right of churches to self-govern and fully exercise their rights of freedom of religion”. Its members include Freedom of Religion South Africa (For SA), the Evangelical Alliance of South Africa and the Christian Lawyers Association.
The group is arguing “that religious institutions have a constitutional right — the right to institutional autonomy”. For SA’s executive director, Michael Swain, said it was important to clarify if the court’s statements on the constitutionality of the NG Kerk’s 2016 decision formed part of the court’s rationale for setting it aside,“or whether they were intended as opinion statements only”.
He said: “If they do form part of the rationale for the judgment, this would make substantial inroads on the autonomy of religious organisations to set their own doctrine.”
Laurie Gaum, one of the members of the NG Kerk who originally took the church to court, has asked for Adacsa’s application to be dismissed. In his opposing affidavit, Gaum says there is “no ‘ambiguity’ … [and that] any genuine problem would easily be resolved by reading the judgment as a whole”.
Gaum says he was “not surprised, but disappointed” by Adacsa’s application. “Because, you know, we’ve come so far. But we will definitely defend [the court’s previous decision] and see to it that it remains to stand.”
At its 2004 general synod, the NG Kerk decided that all in the church, regardless of sexual orientation, were full members. Its 2007 general synod meeting, however, decided that gay ministers would have to remain celibate.
In 2015, in a move that surprised many, the church announced its decision to approve same-sex unions and also allow for the ordaining of ministers who identified as homosexual. The decision was taken after a 64% vote in favour of it was taken at the synod.
Andre Bartlett, author of the 2017 book Weelose Weerstand: Die Gaydebat in die NG Kerk, which documents the church’s history with “the gay debate”, calls the 2015 decision a “definite moment of hope”.
The moment was, however, short-lived. In 2016, during a special synod meeting, the progressive decision was overturned.
“Marriage was instituted by God as a sacred and life-long union between one man and one woman … any sexual intercourse outside such a solid formal marital relationship does not meet Christian guidelines,” read the statement by the church, following the decision.Eleven of the church’s members then took it to court.
Carl Collison is the Other Foundation’s Rainbow Fellow at the Mail & Guardian