Sexual orientation bill going back to Parliament

By Patrick Denny
Stabroek News
January 25, 2001

The bill banning discrimination against persons based on their sexual orientation is to be sent back to Parliament for review following the maelstrom over whether it would in effect legalise homosexual relations.

Unanimously passed by the National Assembly earlier this month, it has not yet been assented to by the President and is therefore not law. Representatives of religious groups and three parliamentary parties who met at the Office of the President yesterday agreed that the Constitution (Amendment) (No.5) Bill should be sent back to the National Assembly for its reconsideration.

The move to return the bill is almost without precedent and according to a knowledgeable source, there is no precedent for dealing with a bill which is returned by the President and is subsequently amended.

In returning the bill to the Speaker of the National Assembly, according to the Constitution, President Jagdeo would have to indicate his reasons for so doing. If it is not amended and is returned unaltered after a two-thirds vote by the Assembly, President Jagdeo is required to assent to it within 21 days unless he dissolves the Assembly earlier.

The legislation, among other things enshrines as a fundamental right a person's right not to be discriminated against on the basis of his/her sexual orientation. It was approved by the National Assembly by a 55-0 vote on January 4, and was based on recommendations from the Constitution Reform Commission (CRC). The Christian, Hindu and Islamic communities were represented on the CRC. Their representatives were Rev Keith Haley and attorneys-at-law Vidyanand Persaud and Shahabudeen McDoom respectively.

Sections of the religious community have over the past two weeks been waging a rearguard battle to have the sexual orientation ground removed from the fundamental rights section of the amended Constitution. It fears that the bill would have far-reaching effects including the legalisation of "same-sex marriages" and the admission of homosexuals in the army.

Answering questions from reporters after the meeting, Guyana Council of Churches (GCC) chairman, Bishop Juan Edgehill said that while the GCC was supportive of the amendment prohibiting discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, it did not want the ban to be enshrined in the Constitution as a fundamental right.

The meeting was called by President Jagdeo to have the issue discussed so as to agree on a way forward in addressing the concerns of the churches. The representatives of the church had previously met President Jagdeo and he had assured them that he would not assent to the bill so that they could have an opportunity to lobby the parliamentary parties.

President Jagdeo told reporters after the meeting that recommitting the bill would give the parties an opportunity to revisit it to see if the concerns expressed could be addressed.

He said too that he was anxious to get the other sections of the legislation enacted such as the provisions dealing with gender equity and the right to education and to work.

President Jagdeo said that he had advised the representatives of the religious community to lobby the PNC for its support for the process that the meeting decided should be adopted.

Bishop Edgehill, one of the leading opponents of the bill, said that he had welcomed the opportunity to discuss the issue with the representatives of the parliamentary parties--the PPP/Civic, The United Force (TUF) and the Alliance for Guyana (AFG). He said that the discussion on the issue had been cordial, useful and spirited and that the GCC representatives would be contacting the PNC Reform to get its support for the procedure for reconsidering the bill.

He disagreed with the suggestion that the church leaders had the opportunity to study the bill before it was approved by the National Assembly. It was sanctioned by the Joint Management Committee on which the PPP/Civic and the PNC are represented.

Fazeel Ferouz a representative of the Moslem community said that he had been thankful for the opportunity to discuss the way forward. He said that the amendment in question was disturbing to his community and the society at large and that his organisation would be working with the parties to get the amendment changed to its satisfaction.

Chandra Gajraj, who represented the Hindu community at the meeting said that she was not convinced that the amendment, which she supported, would legalise homosexuality.

Responding to questions about the position of the Catholic Church which supported the amendment, Bishop Edgehill said that the pastoral letter to the Catholic faithful said that the bill had offered an opportunity for the church to exercise compassion.

However, he asserted that the position being advocated by the GCC was not a campaign of hate against homosexuals, whom he said the church welcomes with open arms.

Recommittal of the bill, Dr Rupert Roopnaraine who represented the AFG at the meeting said, would allow for generating the widest possible support for the fundamental rights section of the Constitution.

Aubrey Collins, who represented TUF and was also a member of the CRC, said that the party was thankful to the religious community for highlighting the possible far-reaching effects of the amendment.

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