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WHAT has been described as “messy, gritty” courtroom battle has erupted in South Africa over the dismissal of a lesbian Methodist minister after she told her congregation of her decision to marry her partner.

Ecclesia de Lange, according to this report, was sacked by the Methodist Church because she married another woman before the church had taken a decision on gay marriage, the Western Cape High Court heard on Tuesday.

The church has been deliberating gay marriage for 13 years and has still not made up its mind.

Lawyers for the church said De Lange, 43, had broken a church rule which stipulated that “no positive steps toward same-sex unions… be taken pending further determination”. Her decision to wed was seen as:

An attempt to impose her religious and doctrinal views on the church and its members.

De Lange says she was unfairly dismissed from her ministry because of her sexual orientation, after she had told her congregation in December 2009 that she was going to marry her female partner.

She was ordained in 2006 and married her partner on December 15, 2009. She has since divorced the woman and is set to marry again.

The church’s lawyer, Isabel Goodman, argued before Judge Anton Veldhuizen that while same-sex marriages were not a “doctrinal taboo” for the church, De Lange’s announcement of her intention to marry had “forced” it to take a position while the church was still “grappling” with the issue of same-sex marriage.

For this reason, she had been suspended and later dismissed, said Goodman.

In January 2010 she was charged by the church’s internal disciplinary committee with breach of the laws governing the church and found guilty. She appealed but this was rejected.

She was eventually dismissed on February 20, 2010.

 Goodman said the matter was likely to be a “messy, gritty fight” over church doctrine and should therefore be dealt with “within the family” of church arbitration and not in open court. An arbitrator experienced in church law would be able to hear more extensive evidence than a court, she added.

It is not for the court to decide whether or not there was a rule (about same-sex marriages).

But Anna-Marie de Vos, De Lange’s lawyer, said a court should decide on the matter, as De Lange’s case was one of discrimination based on sexual orientation. Such discrimination was unconstitutional.

She said as there was no “explicit” prohibition of same-sex marriages and De Lange had not broken church rules.

She asked the court to reinstate De Lange as a minister and set aside the findings of the disciplinary hearing.

Outside the court, De Lange said it had never been her intention to “disrupt” the church, but she had decided to take the matter to court as she felt her constitutional rights had been violated.

She has since got engaged to her fiancée, Melanie Case.

Judgment was reserved by Judge Veldhuizen.

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