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Top Stories This Week in the Chronicle.
November 17, 2006

South Africa joins the marriage club

Cape Town, South Africa--The lower house of the South African parliament on November 14 passed a law legalizing same-sex marriage and civil partnerships in the nation.

The country�s highest court ruled in 2005 that barring same-sex couples from marriage was unconstitutional, and gave the legislature until December 1, 2006 to rectify the situation.

The bill�s earlier form, introduced in September, called for civil unions for same-sex couples and marriage for opposite-sex couples, but legal scholars and LGBT advocates argued that the court�s decision called for full marriage equality.

Last-minute changes to the bill 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 bill also adds opposite-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.

South Africa was the first nation to explicitly include protections for sexual orientation in it constitution when it drew up the current document after the end of apartheid.

�When we attained our democracy, we sought to distinguish ourselves from an unjust, painful past, by declaring that never again shall it be that any South African will be discriminated against on the basis of color, creed, culture and sex,� Home Affairs Minister Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula told the National Assembly.

The ruling African National Congress party supports full same-sex marriage rights, and quelled most dissent from rank and file members who might oppose the legislation, leading to a 230-41 passage on the bill.

It now goes to the National Council of Provinces for final parliamentary approval. Passage in the upper house is considered a formality, much like in the Canadian Senate, and then it can be signed by President Thabo Mbeki.

�It's been a very difficult time. It was a major challenge,� said Patrick Chauke, chairman of the Home Affairs Portfolio Committee, which spent weeks touring the country to gauge public opinion and received nearly 6,000 written comments. �We've arrived at the point where we've met the constitutional requirement that everybody is equal before the law.�

South Africa is set to join four other nations with same-sex marriage: Canada, Spain, the Netherlands and Belgium. The U.S. state of Massachusetts also allows gay and lesbian couples to marry.

Fourteen more nations, mostly in Europe, have civil union or domestic partnership laws that give some, all or few of the rights and responsibilities of marriage, as do Vermont, Connecticut, California, Maine, Hawaii and New Jersey.


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