S. African court OKs same-sex marriage


JOHANNESBURG, South Africa -- South Africa's highest court ruled yesterday that same-sex marriages have the same legal status as those between men and women, effectively making the nation one of five worldwide that have removed legal barriers to gay unions.

The Constitutional Court, as the high court is known, effectively stayed its ruling for one year to give the Parliament time to amend a 1961 marriage law to reflect its decision. If the legislature balks, the court said, the law will be automatically changed to make its provisions gender-neutral.

Few expect Parliament to resist, though African nations are generally intolerant of gay relationships and many South Africans are conservative on social issues.

Among political factions here, only the tiny African Christian Democratic Party, whose positions carry a strong religious undercurrent, called for a constitutional amendment to bar gay marriages.

The African National Congress, which controls the presidency and more than two-thirds of parliament's seats, was silent on the court's decision.

The Constitutional Court's ruling expanded on a 2004 decision by the national Supreme Court of Appeal that affirmed the marriage of a lesbian couple, who were nonetheless unable to register their union with the government's Home Affairs Department. The government had appealed the ruling, arguing that the Supreme Court had encroached on Parliament's authority to make laws.

The Constitutional Court said that the refusal to give legal status to gay marriages, though grounded in common law, violated the constitution's guarantee of equal rights. The justices said marriage laws must be amended to include the words "or spouse" alongside provisions that now refer to husbands and wives.

The decision was essentially unanimous, with one of the court's 12 judges arguing that the ruling should take effect immediately rather than being stayed.

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