JOHANNESBURG, South Africa — On a continent where politicians, church leaders and traditional figures often harshly condemn homosexuality, a South African lesbian couple who wanted to wed won the case for same-sex marriage in their nation's Constitutional Court on Thursday.
But gay activists who hoped for a bunch of weddings had to wait: Instead of immediately legalizing same-sex marriages, the court gave Parliament a year to bring the country's marriage laws in line with its constitution.
After the long years of apartheid, which denied blacks the vote and other democratic rights, South Africa crafted a liberal constitution in 1996 that outlawed discrimination on grounds of race, gender or sexual orientation.
South African activists have used the charter to steadily consolidate gay rights, in stark contrast with the bulk of African countries where homosexuality is still illegal and gays are often ostracized or brutally attacked.
President Robert Mugabe in neighboring Zimbabwe has frequently vilified homosexuals as "lower than dogs and pigs," while Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni has described homosexuality as "unnatural" and ordered police crackdowns.
South Africa stands out on the continent for its constitutional protection of gay rights, but the government has opposed same-sex marriage. Belgium, the Netherlands, Spain and Canada allow gay marriages.
Despite winning a case in the Supreme Court last year supporting their right to marry, lesbian couple Marie Fourie and Cecelia Bonthuys still encountered opposition -- from the Department of Home Affairs. Government lawyers appealed the Supreme Court ruling.
But in a unanimous decision, the Constitutional Court ruled Thursday that it was unconstitutional to deny homosexuals the right to marry and warned that unless Parliament amended marriage laws, the court would automatically alter the legal definition of marriage to include same-sex unions.
"The exclusion of same-sex couples from the benefits and responsibilities of marriage ... signifies that their capacity for love, commitment and accepting responsibility is by definition less worthy of regard than that of heterosexual couples," Justice Albie Sachs said, according to Reuters news service. The court is the nation's highest judicial panel on matters related to the constitution.
The ruling African National Congress released a statement acknowledging the decision. It also said it would respect the court's verdict.
"The Department of Home Affairs will assess what practical steps will be needed to give effect to the change in the law and make appropriate recommendations to the minister," a one-paragraph statement said.
Melanie Judge, program manager of OUT Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transsexual Wellbeing, said reactions in the gay community were mixed: There was jubilation that the right to marriage was upheld but also disappointment that the ruling would not take effect immediately.
"The champagne corks can't quite pop yet," she said in a phone interview. "We do come from a history of intolerance where certain groups were excluded on the basis of sexual orientation or race or gender, et cetera, so it takes time for social attitudes to shift and to get used to notions of tolerance, of respect and dignity."
She said that although the ANC government had initiated some legal reforms, activists had had to take the government to court to win rights on issues such as same-sex marriage.
The decision sparked criticism among some religious and political groups. The conservative African Christian Democratic Party called for a constitutional amendment to limit marriage to that between heterosexuals.
"Every long-standing society has viewed marriage as a union of male and female. Studies of previous civilizations reveal that when a society strays from the sexual ethic of marriage, it deteriorates and eventually disintegrates," said spokesman Steve Swart, quoted by the South African Press Assn. The court said marriage officers could refuse to marry same-sex couples if their consciences prohibited it.