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Top Stories This Week in the Chronicle.
December 8, 2006

With an 'I do,' South
Africa begins same-sex marriage

George, South Africa--The first same-sex marriage was performed here on December 1, one day after the deputy president signed the continent�s first such law.

The couple, Tony Halls and Vernon Gibbs, are game rangers, and were married by an official of the Ministry of Home Affairs.

There was a long road leading to the marriage, one that began a year ago and ended with �I do.�

Last year, the South African high court ruled in favor of same-sex marriage, giving Parliament until December 1, 2006 to enact appropriate marriage laws.

South Africa�s constitution, enacted after the fall of the apartheid system of government in 1994, was the first in the world to specifically protect people on the basis of sexual orientation. The court ruled that barring same-sex marriages was a clear violation of the constitution.

After the ruling, anti-gay activists and politicians called for amending the document to remove sexual orientation protections.

The Civil Union Act was introduced by the Minister of Home Affairs Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula on September 12. In its original form, it would have created a separate civil union structure for same-sex couples to parallel opposite-sex marriage.

That plan brought protest from both sides of the issue. Pro-gay advocates argued that it was not the full marriage equality that the high court mandated, while anti-gay activists ranted about homosexuality being both un-Christian and un-African.

Last-minute changes to the law allow opposite-sex and same-sex couples to be joined under the new law, giving them the option of referring to the relationship as a civil partnership or marriage. The new law also adds same-sex couples to any law already making use of terms like �marriage� or �spouse.�

There is a provision in the law allowing �marriage officers� to opt out of performing same-sex nuptials. Those marriage officers, however, have to notify the government in advance of their opposition to same-sex unions.

The bill passed the lower house of parliament on November 14 with a 230-41 vote, and was then approved by a narrower margin in the upper house of parliament, the National Council of Provinces, on November 28.

Deputy President Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka signed the bill into law on November 30. President Thabo Mbeki was in Nigeria at the time, so Mlambo-Ngcuka was performing her duties as acting president.

�Our IT systems have been tested, forms printed and marriage officers and other frontline officers are now trained to deal with issues relating to the new act,� said Joel Chavalala, acting Director-General of Home Affairs. �We are particularly excited to be at the forefront of this historic development in our country.�

South Africa joins four other countries with full same-sex marriage: Spain, Belgium, the Netherlands and Canada, which also allows couples from other nations to marry. Israel registers same-sex marriages from other countries the same as opposite sex ones, and the U.S. state of Massachusetts also allows same-sex marriage.

A dozen more nations, mostly in Europe, have civil union or domestic partner laws, as do six other U.S. states: Vermont, Connecticut, California, New Jersey, Maine and Hawaii.

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