Future of sexual orientation bill uncertain
By Patrick Denny
August 17, 2003
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Neither the government nor the parliamentary opposition has the appetite to face the issue of whether the ban against the state discriminating on the grounds of an individual’s sexual orientation should be a fundamental right at this time. As a result, the future of the contentious Constitution (Amendment) (No 10) Bill 2003, which remains on the Order Paper, is uncertain.
The government is yet to take a definitive position about how to proceed but the PNCR, the major opposition party, is clear as to what the government should do about it.
The government is faced with the decision either to withdraw or to go ahead with a debate on it and then move to have it referred to the Constitution Review Committee.
The bill, if approved, entrenches as a fundamental right the individual’s right to be protected from discrimination by the state on the ground of sexual orientation. The religious community led by the evangelists and Presbyterians are strong in their opposition to the bill, claiming it is the first step by the gay lobby in its campaign to have same-sex marriages legalized.
Members of the Constitution Reform Commission deny that it was included in its recommendations because of the representations of the gay lobby. It contends that it was raised with some of the groups that appeared before the commission. Also it points out that it accords with the obligations of the state as a result of it being party to international covenants such as the international covenant on civil and political rights.
The government separated the sexual orientation provision from the other non-contentious provisions that together with it were contained in the legislation approved by the last parliament, but to which the President refused assent. That legislation lapsed as the parliament was prorogued for the 2001 elections before it could come up for consideration a second time.
The non-contentious provisions are the subject of the Constitution (Amendment) No 9 Bill that the National Assembly unanimously approved on July 24. Both bills were down for discussion on that day but the government decided not to go ahead with the debate following the observations by opposition parliamentarians. Those observations related to the government’s decision to separate it from the non-contentious provisions with which it was grouped in the legislation approved by the last parliament.
Stabroek News is still to get a definitive position from government spokesmen beyond being told that it is still on the Order Paper and that the intention is to pass it to the Constitution Review Committee for consideration. However, the spokesmen have all been unable to indicate when it will come up for debate, which must happen before it is referred to the Constitution Review Committee.
On the contrary, the PNCR is clear as to what should be done. Its leader, Robert Corbin told Stabroek News that his party’s position is that the bill should be withdrawn and that there are provisions in the Standing Orders of the National Assembly that would allow the government to do this.
He said that having withdrawn the bill, the issue together with the other hundred-odd recommendations from the constitution reform process not yet implemented should be referred to the Constitution Review Committee for its consideration.
Corbin said that the committee once it determines the intent of the Constitution Reform Commission could then come up with a form of words that omits the phrase “sexual orientation” and in that way avoid the constitutional challenges that have arisen in those countries where the constitution explicitly bans discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation.
The PNCR leader explained that his party’s position is informed by the representation of its members and supporters who have expressed reservations about the provision, even though the party supported the bill that included the contentious provision which the last parliament approved.
President Bharrat Jagdeo refused to assent to that legislation following representations made to him by the religious community. It was returned to the National Assembly which was prorogued before it could take up the issue again.
The government during this parliament re-drafted that legislation to omit the sexual orientation provision, which it made the subject of a separate bill, now before the National Assembly.
Corbin reiterated that because it had announced its intention not to support it, the government should never have brought the bill to the House.
The Constitution Reform Commission recommended the provision and the recommendation was endorsed by the Parliamentary Oversight Committee, which considered its report on behalf of the National Assembly. The National Assembly unanimously approved the Oversight Committee report, which recommended the entrenching of the provision.