South Africa

God made us to do it: Christian guesthouse owners ask gay couple to be tolerant of their prejudice

By Marianne Thamm 24 June 2014

In what must rank as one of the most creative interpretations of the country’s equality legislation (and homophobia), the Christian owners of a guesthouse in the small Western Cape town of Wolseley have effectively suggested that a gay couple they refused to accommodate because of their sexual orientation should find it in their hearts to be “tolerant” of their religious beliefs. Yesterday a Western Cape Equality Court magistrate sort of agreed with them. MARIANNE THAMM flushes out a red herring on a bridge too far.

In the beginning.

It was November 2013 when Neil Coulson and his husband Jonathan Sedgwick (the couple are Christians and were married in a religious ceremony last year) found themselves in need of accommodation when their son was due to attend a school camp in the picturesque mountain retreat of Ceres in the Boland.

Instead of travelling the 100km back and forth between their home in Bellville and Ceres, Coulson and Sedgwick decided to find a guesthouse in nearby Wolseley, about 20km from Ceres. They intended to spend the night there before picking their son up the following day.

Sedgwick had liked the look of a guesthouse called Watershed (since renamed House of Bread) and rang the establishment with the intention of booking a room. While guesthouse owner Marina Neethling confirmed that a room was indeed available she informed Sedgwick, after learning that he was checking in with his husband, that she could not accommodate the couple as her guesthouse was not “gay friendly”. She suggested he try another guesthouse in the area.

Speaking to the Daily Maverick yesterday Coulson said his husband had called him in a state of shock after the telephonic encounter with Marina Neethling.

“Jonathan has not been out as long as I have and so he’s not accustomed to this type of behaviour. He thanked Marina for being frank and put the phone down but then he called me and said ‘you won’t believe what has just happened’. Then he told me. I was furious and emailed the guesthouse the next day and asked them to elaborate on what exactly they meant by ‘not gay friendly’,” said Coulson.

Neethling, said Coulson, had replied that she was unable to explain the policy but instead suggested that he was welcome to visit her husband, Steph, who would be happy to elaborate.

“I told her I was not prepared to subject myself to more humiliation. Which is when I decided to take this to the Equality Court not only because of our experience but to represent the sentiments of the greater LGBT community and because this is beginning to happen more frequently.”

The Human Rights Commission is acting on behalf of Coulson as second Amicus Curiae in the case.

The Neethlings, who are being supported by Freedom of Religion SA acting as first Amicus Curiae, have argued that they were and are unable to accommodate Coulson and Sedgwick because “if they willingly and knowingly make a room available where homosexual sex will be practiced, this will make them liable to sin as they would in effect be helping the homosexual couple to sin.”

(That they assumed the couple was intending to have sex is a subject for another occasion).

In an earlier appearance, Nadine Badenhorst, arguing on behalf of Freedom of Religion, suggested the court was being asked to decide “between two conflicting and irreconcilable world views, and to sit as judge on controversial and complicated questions of moral judgment. In the end, the nature of the proceedings being litigious, there will be a winner and a loser and ultimately, a ‘correct’ and a ‘wrong’ worldview or moral framework as decided by the Court. This, when our Constitution is founded upon the very concepts of pluralism, diversity and tolerance which allow for and embrace different world views existing alongside and making space for each other.”

Badenhorst also told the court that “it needs to made clear that the guest house owners are not homophobic or ‘gay haters’. At no point did they kick the couple out or show any animosity towards them because of their sexual preference. At all times, they treated the homosexual couple with respect and kindness, while trying to obey their moral conscience and Biblical conviction for which they cannot apologise and which they cannot simply change because ‘times have changed’.  No person should be forced to act against their conscience, religion and belief.”

Which is, with all due respect, all protocol observed and all that stuff Juju hates; utter nonsense. While it all might sound seductively “reasonable”, Badenhorst’s argument doesn’t have a prosthetic leg to stand on. Exchange “Biblical convictions” about homosexuals to “black people”, “women”, “mixed race couples” and well, you get the picture.

In essence what the Neethling couple have attempted to suggest to the court is that it is THEY who are the victims of discrimination rather than Coulson and Sedgwick. Their argument that it is their freedom to choose their religious beliefs and act out on these and that these are being infringed upon in this case, is a large, flashing, neon red herring.

Sedgwick and Coulson’s request for a room at a commercial establishment that the Neethlings run and advertise as a guest house in no way impinges on their right to practice their religious beliefs.

As Coulson’s legal head of argument states, “The respondents [the guest house owners] are entitled to believe whatever they choose to believe, by virtue of the fact that they operate a business in terms of which they offer their services/accommodation to members of the public within the borders of the Republic of South Africa, that they are subject to the laws of the country including the law which prohibits discrimination on inter alia the basis of sexual orientation”.

During previous hearings Freedom of Religion SA suggested that instead of paying a fine (to be donated to an NGO) the Neethlings, Coulson and Sedgwick “meaningfully engage” in an attempt to “resolve their dispute amicably”.

Yesterday’s hearing was aimed obtaining a ruling about whether the two parties would be ordered to try to “mediate, conciliate or negotiate” as provided in sections of the Promotion of Equality and Prevention of Discrimination Act 4 of 2000 or whether litigation should proceed.

In delivering his ruling, Magistrate Jerome Koeries made it clear he was of the opinion that the two parties should be referred to “another body” which would “mediate, conciliate and negotiate” the case “in the interests of building a bridge of mutual acceptance between the broader gay and lesbian community on the one hand and the Christian faith community on the other, rather than drive a wedge between the communities as this case potentially might do.”

Summing up, Koeries suggested that Coulson “was not the party towards whom the alleged discrimination was directed. It seems to be common cause that Mr Sedgwick, at that point, had no issue with what the respondents said. In fact, it is stated that they parted in a friendly manner, that there is no indication at that point that Mr Sedgwick felt aggrieved or humiliated or offended.”

Speaking to the Daily Maverick after the ruling, Coulson said he was disappointed and was hoping that the case would proceed. While he understood that the magistrate might have wanted to be “fair”, he had fallen for the argument presented by Freedom of Religion SA.

“I am determined to see it through to what will hopefully be a fair ruling in terms of our constitutional democracy because this is what it is all about, not religious freedom,” he said.

Coulson added that he wanted the court to decide what was fair in the matter, as ultimately, “[w]here does it all end? If I go to a town where all the guesthouses have a religious belief that my lifestyle is inappropriate, what then? And if a restaurant feels that it is inappropriate that my family is seated there, what then? It is humiliating and it makes you feel like a second-class citizen.” DM

Photo: Neil Coulsen

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