The SA Human Rights Commission’s (SAHRC) court application against the Beloftebos wedding venue is a case of cheap politics, two women who were turned away from the venue have charged.
Megan Watling and Sasha-Lee Heekes released a statement on Monday after the SAHRC launched the application against the wedding venue. They claimed the application had nothing to do with human rights or a concern for the LGBTQIA+ community.
In January, the venue turned the women away when they wanted to book Beloftebos for their wedding reception, planned for next year.
Their query was initially ignored. After Watling phoned, she received an email in which the venue stated that it did not host same-sex couples’ weddings on religious grounds.
Beloftebos referred the couple to a statement, which was first posted on its website on August 4, 2017, when it turned down another couple, Alexandra Thorne and Alex Lu, who had also taken the matter to the SAHRC.
On Monday, the SAHRC launched an application in the Equality Court, sitting in the Western Cape High Court, against the Stanford wedding venue and its owners, Cornelia and Andries de Villiers.
It is requesting that the court declare that Beloftebos and its owners are “in breach of their obligation not to discriminate unfairly”, to restrain the venue and its owners from continuing to apply the blanket policy of excluding same-sex couples based on their religious beliefs, and declare that the owners of the venue are ordered to apologise to the affected couples.
But, Watling an Heekes believe that the SAHRC’s intention is a power play in response to their withdrawal from the commission’s case.
“Words cannot describe our disappointment in the way the Western Cape office of the SAHRC has first disregarded this matter and then for the sake of saving face, turned to legal action for media attention,” Watling and Heekes claimed.
In their statement, they added that Thorne and Lu had, along with several members of the public, lodged complaints with the SAHRC but “nothing happened”.
The couple said they became aware that no action had been taken after sharing their own experience on Facebook.
They then decided to take the matter to the Equality Court on their own and the papers they intended to file were in the process of being settled by their counsel.
The couple’s representatives were invited to meet with the SAHRC commissioner Andre Gaum and acting provincial manager Bahia Sterris just over a week ago after writing to the commission to express their “severe reservations” about the handling of the case, where the delay in the case was blamed on several factors, the couple said.
This included “several personnel changes” at the Commission on Gender Equality (CGE) which, they say, Gaum assured would be joining as a second applicant.
The parties then “agreed to move forward in this matter as separate entities”.
But they said CGE representatives later told them that they were not ready to proceed and were not joining the SAHRC as a second applicant.
In their papers filed on Monday, the SAHRC was the only applicant.
“Given the misleading information given to us by the SAHRC, their extreme tardiness in this case and after due consideration, we then wrote to the SAHRC on Thursday thanking them for their efforts in this regard but withdrawing our complaint and asking them to not seek relief on our behalf. We simply do not trust the SAHRC to act in our best interests.”
They said the papers filed by the SAHRC relied on facts that were available to them three years ago and one section copied and pasted from Heekes’ statement.
They also had a copy of an email written by Sterris, in which she asked their counsel “if we will be in position to institute proceedings on Monday morning, which is preferred as the parties in [the] second incident intends to lodge on Monday. The commission would prefer to lodge first”.
According to Watling and Heekes, this “reveals the true intention behind the sudden filing of the case against Beloftebos”.
“The fact remains that had they addressed the incident in 2017, we and the number of other couples turned away by the venue would never have suffered the unfair discrimination and humiliation.”
Sterris referred to their statement as “untrue and slanderous”, denying that Gaum had blamed anybody for any delays in the matter.
She told News24 that without admitting to any of the contents of the couple’s statement, the SAHRC found it “very concerning” that “private and confidential correspondence between the commission and its legal representative has been leaked”, saying it would investigate the seriousness as it “may amount to an interference in an investigation conducted by the commission and such person(s), if found guilty of an offence, may be fined or imprisoned for a period not exceeding six months”.
Meanwhile, Beloftebos, through Freedom of Religion South Africa (FOR SA), said they should be allowed to differentiate between the events and activities that they were willing to facilitate on their property based on religious beliefs.
If the court rules against Beloftebos, it will have an impact on every supplier of goods and service provider in South Africa which will be forced to accept work that it may fundamentally disagree with, FOR SA has said in response to the court challenge.