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CHARLES WEBSTER: The righteous bigotry of Beloftebos

OPINION

Following a similar incident in 2017, a second notable case of homophobic discrimination has come to light at wedding venue Beloftebos in Stanford in the Western Cape.

In the last week there have been some impressive theological, legal and logical contortions performed on the venue’s behalf by evangelical Christian lobby group Freedom of Religion South Africa (FOR SA) and by the venue itself.

FOR SA picked up the legal cudgels after the venue declined to host the wedding of Alexandra Thorne and Alex Lu in 2017, and now Megan Watling and Sasha-Lee Heekes, whose wedding is scheduled for April of next year. The current case has been added to the 2017 SAHRC complaint to go before the Western Cape Equality Court.

While Beloftebos and FOR SA are quick to point out that their discrimination has not been found unfair by any court, they might do well not to count their chickens. The case has not yet been heard and both HRC commissioner Andre Gaum and UCT legal scholar Professor Pierre de Vos have expressed the opinion that Beloftebos is probably acting unconstitutionally.

I’d like to take a step back from the legal aspects and address what I consider to be arguably the most egregious (and possibly foundational) of the moral and theological contortions.

That is, the claim that Beloftebos is not expressing hate towards the LGBTQI community in turning away same-sex couples. (A quick disclaimer: I am aware that not all Christians hold homophobic views. I am grateful that more enlightened believers allow an objective view of harm and morality to dictate their view of what’s right and wrong – as we all should.)

DEFENDING DISCRIMINATION

There are three main grounds on which I’ve seen the “it’s not really hate, is it?” claim made.

The first is that Beloftebos’s responses to the affected couples have been “polite”. The second is that Beloftebos is, after all, “simply expressing its sincerely held beliefs, not really spreading hate”. The third is that the complainants are “just looking for attention”.

First, the politeness defence. To be honest, it seems like little more than naïve sophistry to me. A famous “quote” misattributed to Winston Churchill holds that: "Diplomacy is the art of telling people to go to hell in such a way that they ask for directions."

My point being that you’d have to be a little dim to think that just because words are polite, or that (viewed in isolation) they don’t contain any prima facie hatred, they cannot have very hateful roots, intent or, most importantly, impact.

Indeed, given common fundamentalist evangelical beliefs about the afterlife, it seems Beloftebos is trying to do to LGBTQI people exactly what the above quote describes, in the manner it suggests.

Which brings me to the second defence.

GAY PEOPLE AREN’T STUPID

You either have to be dishonest or think that gay people are a bit stupid to expect a gay reader of Beloftebos’s “polite” emails and FOR SA press statements not to know what’s behind the “deeply held beliefs” remark. You’d also have to be morally warped to think that what’s behind it isn’t hateful. Let’s dissect the reality a bit.

FOR SA’s stated goal is to: “…serve[s] as a voice for Christians in South Africa to government and society on issues affecting the autonomy of the church and our constitutional freedom as Christians to: believe what we believe according to our interpretation of the Bible…”

So, we know they’re biblically driven. While they haven’t specified their biblical references, the verses most commonly quoted by evangelical Christians who hold homophobic views include (but are not limited to):

Leviticus 18:22 and Leviticus 20:13 which (on the plain English reading usually employed by Evangelicals) refer to homosexuality as an “abomination” punishable by death.

On similar readings, Romans 1:26-27 refers to it as “degrading”, “unnatural” and “indecent” “receiving… the due penalty of their error”.

1 Corinthians 6: 9-10 refers to it as “unrighteous” and to homosexuals as being in the same class as “adulterers”, the “effeminate” (apparently this is a sin), “thieves” and “swindlers” – none of whom will “inherit the kingdom of God”.

1 Timothy 1:8-10 refers to homosexuals as being among the “lawless”, “ungodly” and “sinners”, “unholy” and “profane” – and places LGBTQI people among “those who kill their fathers or mothers, for murderers” among some lesser but also pretty nasty descriptions.

So, what we see in the Beloftebos case is:

• Evangelical Christians turning at least two lesbian couples away from their wedding venue.

• Them doing so, by their own admission, on the basis of “deeply held belief”, to the point that they would “obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29) as they state in their press release. (I wonder whether they would openly admit an intent to flout the law, but this provocative verse seems to suggest the possibility).

• Evangelical beliefs that are commonly, theologically, based on scripture.

• The scriptures commonly invoked by homophobic believers referring to homosexuality as abominable, degrading, unnatural, indecent, to LGBTQI people as being the equivalent of murderers, the ungodly and sinners, the unholy and profane, none of whom will inherit the kingdom of God – which presumably means they inherit the only other option in fundamentalist theology.

• Everybody knows that these are the scriptures they’re thinking of as the basis for their “deeply held belief” – they know it, the public knows it and gay people know it.

• The inevitable conclusion seems to be that they are turning people away based on their deeply held belief that homosexual couples are abominable, degrading, unnatural, indecent, the equivalent of murderers, etc.

• The LGBTQI community isn’t stupid. The public isn’t stupid. Evangelical Christians know very well that these are the things said by the Scripture they use in defence of their homophobia. One has to ask: in what universe is it anything but hateful to refer to people as abominable, degrading, unnatural, indecent, etc.?

“But it’s not their intent,” plead the apologists. Well, with all due respect, knowingly calling someone the unnatural, abominable equivalent of a murderer who is going to hell without meaning to be hateful, seems a bit like smashing someone in the nose without meaning to cause pain.

Writing “polite” responses to wedding enquiries from LGBTQI couples doesn’t change that. Conveniently glossing over uncomfortable portions of scripture doesn’t change that. Getting FOR SA to use your legal battle as an attempt to legitimise sanctified bigotry doesn’t change that. Not even winning the case would make the moral effect of the euphemisms employed by the pious any less hateful. Even when the hatred is veiled with “propriety”.

IN THE FACE OF INJUSTICE, SEEKING ATTENTION IS RIGHT

The attention seeking accusation is a strange one.

Firstly, because it’s irrelevant to Beloftebos’s guilt or innocence (moral or legal), and secondly, because seeking attention isn’t a bad thing if you’re trying to fight harm, in any case.

So, it’s important to point out that the question of whether Thorne, Lu, Watling and Heekes are seeking attention has no bearing on the validity of their complaints. The accusation is what philosophers call an ad-hominem – and what other people call playing the player and not the ball. It’s an attempt to deflect attention from the real issue at hand, by shaming those who are actually the victims of prejudice.

Secondly, when you live in a country where just 56% of respondents in its most populous province agree that LGBTQI people deserve the same rights as other South Africans, 29% actively disagreed, and 14% think violence towards LGBTQI+ people is acceptable, it’s laughable talking about attention-seeking as if it’s a bad thing.

It is equally ridiculous to do so in a country where 41% of those surveyed know of someone who has been murdered due to their sexual orientation or gender identity, 55% fear daily homophobic discrimination, and 88% of victims of discrimination express deep reservations about reporting to authorities.

If Thorne, Lu, Watling and Heekes are seeking attention – good for them.

Who’s abominable now?

Charles Webster is a former news journalist and is now a corporate communications consultant for an American multinational. He completed an undergraduate degree in communications and English and later Honours and Master’s degrees in philosophy. Follow him on Twitter: @charlesjwebster

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