Assembly defers debate on sexual orientation bill
Religious groups stage protests
By Johann Earle and Andre Haynes
July 25, 2003
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Bill No. 9 of 2003, which covers other less contentious fundamental rights, received a unanimous vote. Also passed yesterday was the Maritime Drug Trafficking (Suppression) Bill 2003.
The sexual orientation bill seeks to entrench non-discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation as a fundamental right and it has sparked fiery debate over the last few months. Many sections of the religious community came out against it while other groups such as the Catholic Church and the Guyana Human Rights Association (GHRA) supported it. Those opposed to the bill argue that it will lay the basis for gay marriages and adoptions by gay couples while those in support of it say the institution of marriage is preserved by the constitution and that it was important that discrimination against gays be outlawed. Originally, the sexual orientation clause had been part of a series of other non-contentious matters but because of the controversy which the clause generated, it was separated by the government from the other provisions in Bill No.9 which easily passed yesterday with the two-thirds majority required for a constitutional bill.
When the sexual orientation bill came up for second reading, following the passage of Bill No.9, Minister of Parliamentary Affairs, Reepu Daman Persaud moved that the bill be passed to the Constitution Review Committee of Parliament for further consideration.
Leader of the Opposition Robert Corbin suggested that the bill be withdrawn completely and the matter be taken to the Constitution Review Committee.
But Speaker of the National Assembly Ralph Ramkarran noted that unless he was directed to a standing order that facilitated this he was not prepared to refer the bill to any committee.
Both Corbin and Ramkarran made the observation that the bill could not be sent to the committee because it had not had its second reading.
More than a hundred demonstrators gathered outside the Ocean View Convention Centre before the session started, voicing their opposition to the inclusion of non-discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation as a fundamental right.
Those taking part in the picketing exercise, which was organised by the Georgetown Ministers Fellowship and the Guyana Evangelical Fellowship, displayed signs and shouted chants censuring the amendment.
“Say No!”, “God Says No To The Legalising of Sodomy”, “Protect me Please!” and “Politicians! Save Guyana’s Children! Say No to Bill 10!” were among the placards.
Prior to the sitting, Loris Heywood of the Ministers Fellowship handed letters and pamphlets urging the rejection of the legislation to MPs going inside. He said the amendment represented corrupt societal views, which now deemed “Sodomy as gay...and sexual perversion as sexual preference.”
Charles Walrond was one of the picketers who “felt that sexual orientation should not be cast as a fundamental right.” He argued that the passage of the amendment would be senseless and offered instead the belief that homosexuals could instead be helped and converted. When asked how he perceived the discrimination meted out to persons based on their sexual orientation, he said that this was a consequence of their choice. “Some of them are brave enough to face it, irrespective of what people say, but it is a choice [for which] there are consequences.”
Another demonstrator added that the homosexual lifestyle was not something that was biological but rather a behavioural pattern, one which he said was “wrong in the eyes of God.”
Corbin had earlier in the session said that he thought it commendable that the religious community was so active on the issue. He added that persons needed to be cognisant of the needs of their constituents and said the PNCR did not only believe that it was a matter of conscience but one of principle.
He questioned the ruling party’s motive for bringing the bill to the National Assembly when it had openly stated that it would not be in support of it.
“The bill should not have been brought here in the manner in which it was brought. The PNCR should have been involved.” And he added that dividing the fundamental rights bill into Bill No.9 and the sexual orientation bill made a mockery of the National Assembly and the idea of consultation as the sexual orientation bill had already been brought before the house.
But he believed it was never the intention of the members on the Constitutional Reform Commission (CRC) which had approved the sexual orientation provision to legalise homosexual marriages and adoptions by homosexual couples when they placed the term ‘sexual orientation’ into the amendment, and he suggested the impact of such an inclusion had simply been overlooked. After the CRC had approved the bill it had been unanimously passed by the National Assembly but never assented to by President Bharrat Jagdeo because of objections by the religious community. Hence its reappearance at yesterday’s sitting.
Leader of ROAR, Ravi Dev said his party did not have a conscience vote, stating that his party believed that the law had an internal morality. He reiterated the fact that the fundamental rights which the bill guaranteed were all negative rights, which were concerned with issues which he called ‘individous’. But he noted that some of the classifications used in the legislation were ‘suspect’ and he asked what the difference was between ‘sex’ and ‘gender’, as referred to in Bill No 9. “We are using classifications which may not necessarily be applicable in Guyana.”
Dr Leslie Ramsammy, Minister of Health, spoke about the concern of the religious community but added, “I don’t know of any same-sex marriages in Guyana.”
After the deferral of the second reading of the bill, Mike McCormack of the GHRA told Stabroek News that although the organisation was content with the postponement, it was unsatisfied that something as important as a constitutional amendment should be subjected to such a vague procedure. He said it appeared as though the parties were still to clearly work out how the issue would be addressed, but he held the view that the postponement would provide for a more balanced and constructive debate. This would allow for the final decision on the amendment to be accepted without fear or resentment.
Heywood meanwhile described the deferral as “a partial victory”. Observing that the issue had also served as a reminder to the religious community of the need for constant vigilance, he said the struggle would continue while the matter was still alive at the parliamentary level. But he considered that this would also provide impetus to the religious community for the implementation of public education and national mobilisation.
The less contentious Bill No.9 seeks to elevate certain articles from mere principles to fundamental rights. It also confers new fundamental rights and human rights. It touches on issues such as the participation of women in various management and decision-making processes, matters of the environment, the state of the economy and education.
Clause 2 of the bill repeals Article 11 which deals with the role of trade unions and co-operatives. Clause 3 repeals and re-enacts Article 22 which now provides not only for equal pay for equal work but also for just conditions of work.
Clause 4 inserts a new paragraph to article 27 setting out the duty of the state to provide education curricula to prepare students to meet the challenge before them. Clause 5 now provides for the participation of women in decision making processes to be encouraged and facilitated by legislation.
Clause six repeals article 30 dealing with equality of children born out of wedlock. Equality of status of all persons is now a fundamental right. Clause 11 is designed to make certain that no person who was a minor at the time an offence was committed be subject to the death penalty for the commission of that offence.
Clause 13 restores the right to prompt payment of adequate compensation for the compulsory acquisition of property. Among the new fundamental rights enshrined in Clause 16 are the right to work, the right to pension and gratuity, equality before the law, rights for indigenous people, right to free education and the right to establish private schools.