A ruling by South Africa’s highest court in favour of gay marriage further exposes Australia’s regressive stance on national gay law reform, according to activists.

South Africa is poised to become the fifth country to legalise same-sex marriage after its highest court said last week it was unconstitutional to deny gay couples the right to wed.

Gay marriage is already legal in Belgium, the Netherlands, Canada and Spain.

The Constitutional Court said parliament had one year to amend laws to make marriage available to gay and lesbian couples. If parliament did not make the changes, the court would alter the law itself.

Justice Albie Sachs ruled the legislative definition of marriage as between a man and a woman was accordingly inconsistent with sections -¦ of the Constitution to the extent that they make no provision for same-sex couples to enjoy the status, entitlements, and responsibilities they accord to heterosexual couples.

South Africa’s post-apartheid constitution was the first in the world to prohibit anti-gay discrimination, an innovation on a continent where gay men and lesbians regularly suffer severe prejudice and discrimination.

Last Thursday’s ruling came after lesbian couple Marie Fourie and Cecelia Bonthuys took legal action because the government did not recognise their 2002 wedding, Associated Press reported.

Last year, South Africa’s Supreme Court ruled in favour of the same-sex partners. A government appeal from that ruling resulted in last week’s judgment.

South African gay activists were pleased with the constitutional court’s decision but frustrated parliament was given a year to put gay marriage laws in place.

In Australia, lobbyists said the ruling was further evidence of this country’s backwardness on national gay rights.

Federal parliament banned same-sex marriage in August 2004.

Australian Coalition for Equality spokesperson Kelly Pilgrim-Byrne said the South African decision was brilliant.

[But] from Australia’s perspective again it is looking more and more backward every day, she told the Star.

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