South Africa's highest court ruled today that same-sex marriages enjoy the same legal status as those between men and women, effectively making the nation one of just five worldwide that have removed legal barriers to gay and lesbian unions.
But the Constitutional Court, as the high court is known, effectively stayed its ruling for one year to give the Parliament time to amend a 1961 marriage law to reflect its decision. Should the legislature balk, the court said, the law will be automatically changed to make its provisions gender-neutral.
Few expect the Parliament to resist, even though African nations are generally intolerant of gay relationships and many South Africans are conservative on social issues. Among political factions here, only the tiny African Christian Democratic Party, whose positions carry a strong religious undercurrent, called for a constitutional amendment to bar gay marriages, reports New York Times.
Last year the Supreme Court of Appeal ruled that two women, Marie Fourie and Cecilia Bonthuys, should be allowed to get married, but the couple later found they were unable to register their church wedding with the department of home affairs.
The departments of justice and home affairs went to the Constitutional Court, seeking leave to appeal the decision on the grounds that only Parliament, not the courts, may amend legislation and that the court had given a ruling on something for which it had not been asked.
In a separate application, the court has been asked by the couple and by an alliance of gay and lesbian organisations for the marriage formula under the Marriage Act of 1961 to be changed to include the words "or spouse" instead of "husband" and "wife".