Court hears fired church minister’s case

A Methodist Church minister was free to exercise her constitutional right to marry her same-sex partner, given the absence of a clear doctrine on the matter, the Supreme Court of Appeal heard on Tuesday.

“She was entitled to do that,” argued Anna-Marie de Vos, for former Methodist minister Ecclesia de Lange.

De Lange was appealing against a high court ruling that she had to take her case against being fired by the church to arbitration, before approaching the high court.

De Lange was charged by the church for proceeding with a same-sex civil union, against its rules and policies.

She submitted that she had not breached the church’s policies.

The church contended that such a rule was in place. The church’s disciplinary committee found she was guilty of failing to observe the rules and policies and recommended she be suspended. An internal appeal was unsuccessful and it was decided that she be sacked from the Methodist ministry.

De Lange launched an arbitration process, in terms of the church’s disciplinary procedure. Before this process began she filed an application for a review in the high court of the church’s decision to fire her.

The high court concluded the application was premature and that De Lange should first seek arbitration.

The appeal in the SCA was against these conclusions.

De Vos argued De Lange turned to the high court because she lost confidence in the arbitration process.

De Lange, in papers, submitted it would be grossly unfair to take part in an arbitration process that would be unfair and serve no purpose. She argued there was a “reasonable apprehension” the appointed arbitrator would be biased towards her.

De Lange wanted the SCA to set aside the decision to fire her as minister, because it constituted discrimination based on her sexual orientation.

Wim Trengove, for the Methodist Church, argued the sole question was whether she acted contrary to church policy.

He argued that De Lange’s founding affidavit in the high court did not set out facts for a discrimination case.

Trengove argued only an arbitrator could decide on the merits of De Lange’s case. This would prevent the court becoming involved in a religious dispute.

In papers before the court the church indicated it only recognised heterosexual marriages. Further, the church indicated the recognition of same-sex marriages had given rise to much debate, and that no decision had yet been taken on the matter.

The SCA reserved judgment.

– Sapa


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