Ecclesia de Lange

The Supreme Court of Appeals in Bloemfontein has dismissed an appeal by a fired lesbian Methodist minister and has ruled that courts should not be expected to decide on internal religious matters.

Ecclesia De Lange has been fighting for more than four years to have her job reinstated after she was dismissed by the Methodist Church of South Africa (MCSA) in 2010 for marrying her same-sex partner.

In August, the Supreme Court of Appeals heard her appeal against a June 2013 Cape Town High Court ruling forcing her back into arbitration with the Church.

De Lange argued that she should not be forced into internal Church arbitration, that the arbitration is biased because it is decided on by a member of a Church, and that it is pointless.

In its ruling, issued on Tuesday, the Court disagreed with De Lange on all her points.

Judge Visvanathan Ponnan wrote that there was a valid arbitration agreement between De Lange and the Church and that she should be bound by it. He further ruled that it was not unfair that the arbitrator is a member of the Church and that there is no support for her complaint of bias.

Judge Ponnan said that it was “entirely understandable” for the church to insist that “only those persons who are familiar with the rules, procedures and practices are appointed to the rather sensitive task of adjudicating disciplinary disputes.”

Most significantly, Ponnan supported the Church’s argument that the matter was “the kind of dispute that a secular court should avoid becoming entangled in…” and cited the Church’s right to freedom of religion.

“A court should only become involved in a dispute of this kind where it is strictly necessary for it to do so. Even then it should refrain from determining doctrinal issues to avoid entanglement.

“It would thus seem that a proper respect for freedom of religion precludes our courts from pronouncing on matters of religious doctrine, which fall within the exclusive realm of the Church,” he wrote.

Ponnan concluded that, “the dispute between the parties is best determined by arbitration. It follows that the appeal must fail.”

Ingrid Lynch from Cape Town’s Triangle Project told the Cape Times that it was “deeply worrying” that many religious institutions failed to “respond to LGBTI clergy in an affirming and welcoming manner”.

“This outcome sends a harmful message of intolerance, not only to LGBTI clergy but also to church congregants and community members that they will not be fully accepted due to their sexual orientation or gender identity,” she said.

Writing on Facebook, De Lange said that Court’s decision came as “no surprise” and that it had not addressed “whether I was treated unfairly or not.”

She added that she and her legal team are studying the judgement and will then decide on the way forward. It is likely that the matter will go to the Constitutional Court.

The MCSA insists that the former minister’s dismissal was justified because she broke the Church’s rules by marrying a woman. It says that while the issue of same-sex marriage is still under debate in the Church, it only currently recognises marriage between a man and a woman.

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