South African gay groups have welcomed today’s historic step taken by the country’s Parliament in opening up unions to gays and lesbians, but are disappointed that it will run separately to existing marriage laws.

The Civil Unions Bill was passed today by 230 votes to 41, allowing the “voluntary union of two persons, which is solemnised and registered by either a marriage or civil union.”

The Joint Working Group, a national network of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) organisations, welcomed the law but expressed disappointment at opt outs for religious groups and the creation of a separate law.

The Civil Unions Act runs separately to the Marriage Act, which defines the marriage as a male and female union.

David Bilchitz, Chairperson of Jewish Outlook, said there should be one law, “There is no rational reason for allowing same-sex couples only to be married under the Civil Union Bill and not the Marriage Act.

“We urge government to rationalise our marriage laws and create one legal regime for all in South Africa.”

The Joint Working Group asserts that at least one section in the Civil Union Act is unconstitutional and vulnerable to legal challenge.

Section 6 allows civil marriage officers to object to marrying lesbian and gay people on the grounds of conscience.

Melanie Judge, Programme Manager of OUT LGBT Well-being, said: “We have no objection to religious denominations only marrying people according to the dictates of their faith. We do, however, object strongly to allowing civil marriage officers to decide who they will marry and who they won’t.

“This is particularly problematic when the basis for exercising conscience is limited to sexual orientation”

The process of deliberation surrounding the Civil Union Bill has shown that many South Africans harbour deep prejudice and intolerance against lesbian and gay people.

Many people have shown their failure to understand the separation of religion and state and even to understand the fundamental rights and values of our Constitution, with religious groups fiercely opposing the law.

The Joint Working Group has called on the government to develop public education programmes aimed at deepening the commitment of all South Africans to honouring and embracing diversity whether it be in relation to race, gender or sexual orientation.