Senate passes Human Rights Amendment; Rabain says Island needs same sex marriage conversation

7 Sep

By Ayo Johnson

  • PLP Senator Diallo Rabain

The stage is now set for another battle in parliament over human rights legislation after Senators passed the Human Rights Amendment Act 2013 without a clause which would have expanded the scope of unlawful harassment.

And, according to at least one legislator, Bermuda needs to have a conversation on same sex marriage.

Government had originally proposed to expand the definition of unlawful harassment to include areas beyond the workplace. But advocacy groups Centre for Justice and Citizens Uprooting Racism in Bermuda raised the alarm over a subsection which would have exempted the police.

The groups urged the Government to remove the offending subsection, but Government then decided to remove the amendment altogether, saying they would rather opt for a separate law dealing with harassment.

Opposition Progressive Labour Party MPs successfully prevented the amendment’s withdrawal when the bill was debated on Friday.

But Opposition Senators did not object at yesterday’s Senate sitting.

Opposition Senate Leader Diallo Rabain said the effort would have been wasted as the independent Senators invariably vote with the Government.

“It has to go back to the House to be redebated. The chance of us winning down here is a lot slimmer than it is down there. There’s only three of us, and every amendment that we’ve brought forth, independents have voted with the Government,” Sen Rabain said.

Venous Memari, managing director of Centre for Justice, indicated that she was not disappointed with the outcome.

“Given the choice between all of it in and all of it out, we would rather have all of it out.”

Sen Rabain said he was generally content with the bill.

“My concern is the same sex marriage part, because that is something that is the big elephant in the room. It’s a conversation that needs to happen. It needs to happen because there are proponents out there. Not just people who say if the Act passes it’s going to lead to that. You have people that out there that once this Act passes, they hope it leads to that,” he continued.

“So it’s not something we can just stand up and beat our chest and say ‘there will not be same sex marriage under my administration’.”

He added: “I’m not saying I’m a proponent of same sex marriage but I do understand that it’s the way the world is moving and Bermuda is no different from the rest of the world and it’s time for us to have that conversation on how we can address it.”

Senator Alexis Swan, who introduced the bill to the Senate, said she was pleased the bill had been approved by the Upper Chamber. “It’s been a long time waiting and you’ve had a lot of people that have tried to push this forward and its been a lot of silence that’s been given to it. No one in Bermuda should be discriminated against.”

Sen Swan repeated Government’s position that it does not support same sex marriage. She pointed out that the Matrimonial Causes Act voids same sex marriages.

But other laws are subservient to the Human Rights Act, and lawyer Juliana Snelling has pointed out that the Matrimonial Causes Act could already have been challenged on the grounds of sex discrimination. The legal argument would depend on whether marriage could be categorised as a service for the purposes of the Human Rights Act.

Human Rights Commission Chair Michael Hanson declined to clarify whether the services provided by the Registrar General in certifying marriages would qualify as a service or facility under the legislation. Any comment, he said, “could prejudice any possible future cases we may hear on these issues”.

A proposed amendment by Opposition MP Wayne Furbert, intended to ensure that the Human Rights Act does not override the Matrimonial Causes Act, was defeated in parliament. It was not resurrected by Opposition Senators in yesterday’s debate.

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