/ 7 February 2020

Even religious freedom has its limits

Megan Watling Left And Sasha Lee Heekes
Degrees of discrimination: Megan Watling and Sasha-Lee Heekes (above) could not celebrate their marriage in a venue of their choice.


Are all beliefs equal? Does every opinion deserve the respect of citizens and the protection of the state? Should the right to freedom of belief, religion and opinion be absolute?

These questions pervaded my thoughts when reading about how Megan Watling and Sasha-Lee Heekes were recently denied the use of the Beloftebos wedding venue because their marriage violated the owner’s Christian beliefs. For them, marriage is an institution designed by God and solely reserved for the union of a man and woman.

The couple, angry and wounded, wrote of their feelings on social media. Soon fervent debate was ignited and a petition was drafted rallying citizens to demand the intervention of the South African Human Rights Commission. Accused of and chastised for discrimination, Beloftebos released a media statement on their website to clarify their position. Their defence appealed to the constitutional right to religious freedom and the expression or enacting of that liberty through denying wedding services to lesbian, gay, transgender, queer and intersex (LGBTQI+) clients.

I was intrigued but not surprised by the appropriation of liberal values for a conservative business decision. Remarkably, on Twitter and Facebook, there was support for Beloftebos’s actions and reasons, that reaffirmed their liberal justification. Many of these supporters seemed to be frustrated and confused by the calls for a boycott of the business because of the injustice against Watling and Heekes.

“You can’t force people to accept your lifestyle,” said one person while another said, “Everyone has an equal right to an opinion.” A third person said, “This is an attack on freedom of religion” and a fourth said “Stop moaning and find another wedding venue.”

I pondered these perspectives, asking myself: even if I disagree with a belief held in reverence by an individual or institution, what justifies my own or the state’s demand that they compromise their faith? I don’t want to make an argument solely based on the authority of our Constitution. Rather, I ask that we closely and honestly examine how belief functions in society.

The right to freedom of belief and its expression does not mean that all beliefs are equal. In other words, not all opinions are of the same moral and logical value. This is an awkward truth and a difficult discussion to navigate. In a country where political opinion was once suffocated by authoritarian power and nonconformist thought constantly beaten down, many South Africans have come to cherish the liberty to rule over our own thoughts and to boldly proclaim our values.

Democracy in this country has been marked by the attempt to accommodate a diversity of belief, often while trying to avoid tricky and uncomfortable discussions. An unintended consequence of this process has been the cultivation of a culture of artificial tolerance. Too many of us have deluded ourselves into forgetting that some opinions and beliefs are bad.

The notion that marriage is to be enjoyed and endured only by heterosexuals is one of the many bad opinions that can be privately embraced but not adversely affect how other citizens live their lives. It would be unconstitutional and unfair for the state to compel a priest or imam to officiate a same-sex marriage if it stands against their values or contradicts their beliefs.

But Beloftebos is not a church or mosque or temple. It is a business that sells a service to the public.

It was saddening to see some people who explicitly did not identify as Christian defend Beloftebos’s decision, as though homophobia is a morally sound and rational belief to hold.

And I imagine some may find the use of the term homophobia unfair and inaccurate. A person who loudly rejects LGBTQI+ people and is willing to harass, bully or use violence against them is homophobic. But so too is a person who quietly discriminates against queer people. The actions of Beloftebos, and any institution that discriminates on the basis of sexuality, also have a home on the spectrum of prejudice.

If a business refuses service to an individual or group based not on what an individual or group has done, but rather on what a person or group is, reflects a deep disapproval of a person or group’s identity. In this particular situation, not believing LGBTQI+ people should participate in a practice as old as humanity itself, in which people have found profound meaning and immeasurable joy, shouts to all of society that such a group is somehow undeserving, ill-suited and unworthy of the practice. Surely, such hostility must be aptly described as homophobia?

Rohingya Muslims in a refugee camp in Bangladesh (left) have faced persecution and pogroms in Myanmar, where the majority religion is Theravada Buddhism. (Ye Aung Thu/AFP)

Moreover, if one holds the view that religious freedom justifies such discrimination, the question of how far religious freedom can be exercised needs to be addressed. Should religious schools reject the admission of LGBTQI+ children? Is it morally sound for Muslim or Christian adoption agencies to deny orphans the opportunity to be raised by a responsible and caring same-sex couple? Would we tolerate universities firing queer staff or expelling queer students?

It’s tempting to think our beliefs have little or no effect on the experiences of others. This allows us to elude responsibility for what we say and how we act based on what we believe. Ideas, be they religious, political or cultural, do not float above us sealed off and intangible. Rather they are in our worlds, pumped with power by those who wield them. The actions of businesses, while undertaken as private institutions, still affect those who choose to buy their products. So business practices matter — as does the reaction of the law to their practices.

Watling and Heekes have lodged a complaint with the Human Rights Commission. A considerable number of citizens, Christian and secular alike, have viewed this kind of legal action as unfair persecution of a religious group. The state must not be callous with the rights of an individual or group.

History is humiliated with episodes of religious groups that struggled to survive the brutality of governments seeking to exterminate those who did not conform to popular ideology. For Muslims in Burma, Christians in Iran and Hindus in Pakistan, openly practicing their faith can have lethal consequences.

But South Africa is not a theocratic dictatorship. Christians are not politically disempowered, nor the victims of state violence. Numerically, Christians are a religious majority. Gospel artists sometimes outsell their secular counterparts. Sermons crowd public television screens on Sundays and churches pervade urban and rural spaces across the country. Certain brands of pastors have become a new kind of celebrity.

What South Africa is not is a paradise for LGBTQI+ people. A wide, dark and chasmic space exists between progressive legislation and the often unchallenged hostility towards anyone who isn’t straight. On the whole, unless one is protected by wealth or lucky to be supported by loving friends and family, those who don’t live by the rules of sexual and gender conformity are treated with disrespect similar to the degradation people of colour experienced under the heels of white power.

The evidence is damning to the democratic dream we have been trying to manifest: corrective rape remains a nightmare for lesbian women and gay men, while queer children, whether transgender or non-binary, still fear and endure severe bullying at schools. Suicide is seen as the only relief for too many LGBTQI+ people across age, race and class, who often suffer from depression, anxiety or post-traumatic stress.

Precisely because queer equality has yet to be made tangible, because our freedom is held hostage by various forms of bigotry and because government deals with LGBTQI+ issues often only in progressive rhetoric followed by little or no meaningful action, the choice to discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation matters.

No human rights are absolute. Reasonable limits are placed on rights and freedoms in democracies around the world. I predict the Human Rights Commission will act in favour of Watling and Heekes, primarily because the right to freedom of religion exists insofar as it does not impede the liberty of others.

Constitutional debates aside, we need to have conversations on what beliefs should be respected and defended. Such discussions should be led by asking ourselves how freedom can be fairly realised and savoured by all citizens — and what beliefs, opinions and values stop human beings from living their lives without fear or indignity.

Andile Zulu has a blog called Born Free Blues