JOHANNESBURG -- South Africa's highest court ruled yesterday that gays and lesbians have a right to marry, and it gave the national parliament one year to change the words ''husband" and ''wife" to ''spouse" in its marital laws.
Under the ruling, which was greeted with jubilation by gays and lesbians and frustration by some church leaders, South Africa will become the first African nation and the fifth in the world to extend full marital rights to same-sex couples.
''It was a great victory for human rights and gay and lesbian people," said Dawie Nel, director of OUT, an advocacy group based in Pretoria, speaking by phone.
The 111-page opinion by the nation's Constitutional Court stems from a wedding held Dec. 11 between a longtime Pretoria couple, Marie Foure, 54, and Cecilia Bonthuys, 44, in a Christian church. They decided to wed after more than a decade of living together because a lower court approved same-sex marriages last year.
But the government's Department of Home Affairs resisted efforts to have their union legally registered, setting the stage for yesterday's court ruling.
Gay activists expressed hope that the ruling would lessen the violence and ridicule they say are common in South Africa, despite a clause in the nation's constitution prohibiting discrimination based on sexual orientation. Rape of lesbians by men who say they can ''cure" their sexual orientation are also common, gay and lesbian leaders said.
''It's really, really difficult to be black and a lesbian in South Africa," said Thuli Madi, head of Behind the Mask, a Web-based magazine focused on gay life and issues. ''As a woman, you are constantly harassed by the males in your community."
Elsewhere in Africa, attitudes toward homosexuality are more severe. Gay and lesbian sex is illegal on most of the continent, with punishments in some cases including the death penalty. Many religious and political leaders call homosexuality ''un-African."
In South Africa, initial criticism of the ruling was strongest from some religious leaders but generally muted. The South African Council of Churches, an umbrella group whose member churches have about 26 million followers, said the ruling provoked such diverse reactions that a unified position was unlikely.