IAM’s work with the Dutch Reformed Church (DRC) and role in the recent landmark court case

The Dutch Reformed Church (DRC) is one of the many denominations within Southern- and Eastern Africa that IAM has lobbied with and with whom we have done intensive advocacy work to bring issues of discrimination against LGBTI people to the fore. IAM’s work with the DRC was part of the organization’s first mission. IAM founder, Pieter Oberholzer, addressed more than 200 DRC congregations between 1995 and 1998, sharing his experience, advocating to put the issue of homophobia and discrimination in the DRC on the agenda, and insisting that LGBTI representatives be part of the conversation. In 1998 and 1999 Pieter was invited to address the Western Cape Synod, and in 2000 IAM was invited to form part of what was then called the Study Commission on Homosexuality.

IAM’s work over the last two and a half decades helped lay the groundwork for the DRC’s landmark 2015 General Synod decision to recognize and bless same-sex marriages. During this synod gay clergy, IAM staff and allies sat in the gallery in silent protest, wearing t-shirts that read #LiefdeisLiedfe (love is love). This powerful gesture, combined with decades of intensive work that IAM and our partners did to shift opinion within the church, is believed to be at least partially responsible for the shifting viewpoints in the DRC that culminated in the surprise 2015 decision.

Despite the changing climate in the church (or perhaps in reaction to it), the DRC took a step backwards in 2016, calling an extra-ordinary Synod that revoked the 2015 decision, declaring that homosexual relationships do not meet Christian guidelines. IAM and its allies couldn’t accept this result and began their work again to garner public support against the church’s decision and to challenge the ruling on legal grounds in the High Court of Pretoria.

Over the last three years, IAM has invested countless time and energy into lobbying to reverse the decision. IAM and its allies determined that the best course of action was to challenge the ruling on procedural grounds: in contravention of their own constitutional rules, the DRC did not hear nor respond to any appeals made against their highest body, the General Synod. There were eventually 11 applicants, including three IAM staff members, and the matter was before the High Court of Pretoria in 2018.

“It’s a sad thing that the Constitution
has to tell faith communities to
be faithful to the gospel of
inclusion, love and human dignity.”

– Professor Charlene van der Walt,
former IAM staff and current staff of the
school of religion and philosophy at UKZN

During the three years that the case was being prepared and heard before the courts, IAM organised several conferences with hundreds of allies to muster support. IAM’s #LoveisLove movement spread and garnered more than 5000 followers, including more than 35 congregations that declared that they did not accept the 2016 homophobic decision. Supporters, including social activists, celebrities, theological students, academics and ordinary South Africans, wore the iconic #LoveisLove t-shirts to hearings in silent protest, posted pictures of wearing them on social media, and were spotted in them at public gatherings of all kinds.

The #WhyDiscriminate movement was also fostered by IAM and a small group of queer clergy to rally public support for the DRC court case. The group and hashtag took the issue of the DRC case and made it more universal, noting that the injustice and misconduct happening within the DRC was just part of a larger problem within churches in South Africa and on the African continent. #WhyDiscriminate became an intersectional struggle of gender identity, gender expression, sexuality, racism, Thursdays in Black, rape culture and religious and institutional violence/ bullying.

On Friday, 8 March 2019 the South African Supreme Court ruled on the case, overturning the DRC’s 2016 decision not to recognize same sex marriages. A ruling in favour of LGBTI against a main-line church denomination is a first of its kind and has LGBTIQ activists hopeful that churches will be held more accountable for upholding the Constitution. IAM’s concerted effort over the past three years, as well as the 23 before that, to influence public opinion and change church beliefs towards the LGBTI community have no doubt played a significant role in this historic ruling. This court case would not have happened if we did not create strong and confident change agents within the Church who were willing to challenge the Church on a procedural error they made regarding Church Law.

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