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South Africa Same-Sex Marriage Law Sparks Intense Debate

South Africa this week became the first African country, and only the fifth in the world, to legalize same-sex marriages. The law was passed overwhelmingly in the national assembly, because of support by the ruling African National Congress. But it caused a heated debate across the country that is not likely to subside soon.

South Africa's Minister of Home Affairs, Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula, presented the bill to the National Assembly, saying it addressed one of the inequalities left over from the apartheid era.

"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 would be discriminated against on the basis of color, creed, culture and sex," she said.

The new law legalizes marriages between adults of the same or opposite sexes. It was passed a few weeks before a deadline set by the country's Constitutional Court.

The court ruled a year ago that the existing marriage law, enacted in 1961, did not conform to South Africa's 1996 constitution. The constitution, ratified two years after the end of apartheid, guarantees equal rights for all.

Although most South Africans reject discrimination, the concept of same-sex marriage upset many people, especially religious communities.

The leader of the African Christian Democratic Party, Pastor Kenneth Meshoe, told delegates the constitution should be amended to protect, what he called, the sanctity of traditional marriage.

"The Civil Union Bill justifies immorality and, by inference, calls sexual perversion a legitimate alternative lifestyle that should be openly accepted," he said.

A delegate of the predominantly Afrikaaner, Freedom Front Plus party, Corne Mulder spoke in Afrikaans and English to say that the constitution and the law must not go against the values of the community.

"Marriage is an institution created by God between a man and a woman. That is why God created Adam and Eve and not Adam and Steve," he said.

The same-sex marriage bill also angered traditional African leaders who said it violates African customs and morals.

A delegate from the Pan Africanist Congress of Azania, Motsuoko Pheko, said same-sex marriage was un-African and noted that homosexuality is illegal in many African countries.

"Only those who have sold their souls to cultural imperialism will support this obscenity," he said.

He said the freedom struggle in South Africa was not for same-sex marriage, but against poverty, landlessness and a lack of social services.

He said the bill should be submitted to a national referendum.

But a delegate of the ruling African National Congress, Sefora Ntombela, quoted from a letter written by a boy in which he described his feelings of alienation because he felt like a woman.

Speaking in Sesotho and English, she asked if God was against such people, why would he create this boy.

"Who am I to say no to the rights of other people?," she said.

Other delegates said the bill was a compromise that had failed to achieve its purpose.

A delegate of the opposition Democratic Alliance, Santosh Vinita Kalyan, said the government had created a new civil marriage law which includes all South Africans, but had retained the old marriage law that discriminates against gays and lesbians.

"The bill is a starting point in the right direction, but in the wrong way," Kalyan said. "The ideal is to have a marriage act, one marriage act for everyone. It is the only way to truly recognize the equality of all our people."

The new law also includes a provision that allows marriage officials to refuse to carry out a ceremony for reasons of conscience. Gay rights activists say this measure discriminates against them and therefore is unconstitutional.

Gay and lesbian groups generally have welcomed the new law, but some say they intend to challenge it in court.

A researcher at Johannesburg's Center for Applied Legal Studies, Beth Goldblatt, notes that the new law also fails to address traditional marriages, religious marriages, and domestic partnerships.

"Parliament has said that this bill is an interim measure to meet the deadline that the court gave the parliament and that over the longer term there may be general reforms to bring all marriages into a single system," she said.

As a result, some analysts say other marriage legislation is likely to be proposed in South Africa and the debate will likely be as intense as before.