By CLARE NULLIS
CAPE TOWN, South Africa – South African lawmakers passed legislation recognizing gay marriages on Tuesday despite criticism from both traditionalists and gay activists.
The bill, unprecedented on a continent where homosexuality is taboo, was decried by gay activists for not going far enough and by opponents who warned it “was provoking God’s anger.”
Veterans of the governing African National Congress praised the Civil Union Bill for extending basic freedoms to everyone under the spirit of the country’s first post-apartheid constitution, adopted a decade ago by framers determined to make discrimination a thing of the past.
“When we attained our democracy, we sought to distinguish ourselves from an unjust painful past by declaring that never again shall it be that any South African will be discriminated against on the basis of color, creed, culture and sex,” Home Affairs Minister Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula declared.
South Africa’s constitution was the first in the world to prohibit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, providing a powerful legal tool to gay rights activists even though South Africa remains conservative on such issues.
A Christian lawmaker, Kenneth Meshoe, said Tuesday was the “saddest day in our 12 years of democracy” and warned that South Africa “was provoking God’s anger.”
His comments reflected the majority view on a deeply conservative continent.
Homosexuality is illegal in Zimbabwe, Kenya, Uganda, Nigeria, Tanzania, Ghana and most other sub-Saharan countries. Some countries also are debating constitutional amendments to ban same-sex marriages. Even in South Africa, gays and lesbians are often attacked because of their sexual orientation.
One church leader in Nigeria, Apostle Abraham Umoh of the Mount of Victory Mission, denounced the vote as “satanic,” while Bishop Joseph Ojo of Calvary Kingdom Church in Lagos said it was recognition of “animal rights” rather than human rights.
The Roman Catholic Church and many traditionalist leaders in South Africa said the measure denigrated the sanctity of marriages between men and women.
To ease some of these concerns, the bill allowed both religious and civil officers to refuse to marry same-sex couples on moral grounds.
Gay rights groups criticized this “opt-out” clause, saying they should be treated the same as heterosexual couples, but in general, they praised the new measure.
“It demonstrates powerfully the commitment of our lawmakers to ensuring that all human beings are treated with dignity,” said Fikile Vilakazi of the Joint Working Group, a national network of 17 gay and lesbian organizations.
Activists in Europe, where several countries have gay union provisions, said South Africa was a shining example for gay rights. “It’s a beautiful thing for South Africa today,” said Guillermo Rodriguez, a member of a French gay and lesbian association who said he hoped France would follow suit.
Gay couples in South Africa started making wedding plans.
“For some people marriage means nothing, it is just a piece of paper. But we want that symbolism of having a legally binding document of our love,” said Lindiwe Radebe, who wants to marry her partner Bathini Dambuza.
The bill provides for the “voluntary union of two persons, which is solemnized and registered by either a marriage or civil union,” without specifying whether they are heterosexual or homosexual partnerships.
The National Assembly passed the bill 230-41 with three abstentions. The measure now goes to the National Council of Provinces, which is expected to be a formality, before being signed into law by President Thabo Mbeki.
The bill was drafted to comply with a Constitutional Court ruling last December that said existing marriage legislation was unconstitutional because it discriminated against same-sex couples. The court set a Dec. 1 deadline for parliament to change the law.
Rather than change existing marriage laws, the government introduced the additional civil union bill in the hopes that this would be the speediest option.
Given the ANC’s huge majority, the government can push through almost any legislation it wants. But it had to order lawmakers to respect the party line and wheeled out stalwarts of the anti-apartheid movement to convince reluctant traditionalists.
“The roots of this bill lie in many years of struggle,” said Defense Minister Mosuia Lekota, noting that many homosexuals went into exile and prison with ANC members during white racist rule.
“This country cannot afford to be a prison of timeworn prejudices which have no basis in modern society. Let us bequeath to future generations a society which is more democratic and tolerant than the one that was handed down to us,” Lekota said.
Emotions were charged during the two-hour debate.
“This bill has been a headache and a heartache for many South Africans,” said the small Inkatha Freedom Party, which opposed the measure.
Beth Goldblatt, a senior researcher at the Center of Applied Legal Studies at the University of the Witswatersrand in Johannesburg, predicted the bill would be challenged because of the opt-out clause.
“I don’t see why people should present themselves before a marriage officer and be refused just because the marriage officer has different moral views,” Goldblatt said.
Denmark in 1989 became the first country to legislate for same-sex partnerships and several other European Union members have followed suit. In the United States, only Massachusetts allows gay marriage. Vermont and Connecticut permit civil unions, California grants similar status through a domestic-partner registration law, and more than a dozen states give gay couples some legal rights.
Associated Press writers Celean Jacobson in Johannesburg, Katharine Houreld in Lagos, Nigeria, and Emily Withrow in Paris contributed to this report.