“Such a dispute, as far as is possible, should be left to the church to be determined domestically and without interference from a court,” the SCA said in its ruling handed down this week.
“A court should only become involved in a dispute of this kind where it is strictly necessary for it to do so.”
De Lange sought an order against the church setting aside an arbitration agreement between her and the church.
The church’s decision to suspend and later dismiss De Lange arose from her 2009 announcement to her congregation of her intention to marry her same-sex partner.
She was accused of contravening the laws of the church and a disciplinary hearing was held before the church’s district disciplinary committee.
The committee recommended she be suspended as a minister until such time as the debate within the church on the permissibility of same-sex marriages was resolved.
De Lange appealed to the connexional disciplinary committee and she was dismissed. It ruled that she could remain an ordained minister but would be precluded from exercising any ministerial functions.
De Lange referred the dispute to arbitration and a convenor of the connexional arbitration panel of the church signed an agreement on her behalf detailing the process that would follow. It was unclear what the arbitration agreement stated.
Later, De Lange sought legal action against the church in the Western Cape High Court. She asked the court not to enforce the arbitration agreement. In doing so, she was required to persuade the court that there was good cause for avoiding arbitration in the circumstances of the matter.
The court ruled that De Lange’s application was premature and that she should first submit to arbitration. The court dismissed the application with costs but granted her leave to appeal.
In the SCA, De Lange contended she should not be required to submit to the arbitration because it would be a futile process.
The court found there were clear advantages to arbitration as compared to court processes including expedition, finality and cost-effectiveness.