Forging an “imperfect compromise” that Cayman Islands legislators may eventually be compelled to follow, politicians in Bermuda have introduced legislation allowing gay couples to register “domestic partnerships.”
The bill has attracted controversy in the territory and beyond because it essentially repeals same-sex marriage – a position forced on the Bermuda government by its Supreme Court following a test case last year.
Walton Brown, Bermuda’s Home Affairs Minister, said the The Domestic Partnership bill provided same-sex couples with a raft of legal rights similar to marriage – but not the title.
“As it stands now, they can have the name marriage but without the benefits. But after this Bill passes, they have the benefits and just not the name marriage. The benefits are what they really want,” he said.
Critics labeled the move an embarrassing step backward for Bermuda, which saw its first gay marriage last year after the Supreme Court ruled that its constitutional definition of marriage as between a man and a woman was inconsistent with international human rights legislation.
However, Bermuda’s position on the issue is still more liberal than in Cayman, where there are no formal legal rights for same-sex couples.
In fact, campaigners in Cayman have not explicitly called for same-sex marriage to be legalized. What they do claim is that human rights legislation requires that Cayman’s legislators at least allow couples to register their partnerships.
The Human Rights Commission has recommended legal recognition of same-sex unions, though not necessarily gay marriage, similar to what the Bermudian government had just introduced.
This would serve to protect a number of rights and obligations that married couples have, including laws regarding financial support, child maintenance payments, inheritance and immigration.
Case precedent in the European Court of Human Rights, the highest court of appeal for both Bermuda and Cayman, has already established that this is required of all member states and numerous legal experts, including the Human Rights Commission, have indicated that Cayman is currently susceptible to a legal challenge on the issue.
The legal and political landscape in Bermuda is markedly similar to that in Cayman with a religious lobby campaigning strongly for the preservation of traditional marriage amid legal and social pressure for change.
Chris Famous, a backbench MP and newspaper columnist in Bermuda, described it as a “philosophical civil war.” He acknowledged the solution had left some on both sides dissatisfied.
Mr. Brown, speaking in the Bermuda Legislative Assembly, said the bill embraced greater rights while acknowledging the political reality that same-sex marriage was not supported by the majority of MPs.
“The status quo will not stand,” he said, according to a report in the Royal Gazette newspaper.
“On the ground, the political reality is that if we do not lead, we would have a Private Members Bill tabled to outlaw same-sex marriage.
“That Bill would pass, because more than 18 MPs are opposed to same-sex marriage. If that Bill passes, same-sex couples have no rights whatsoever. This is tough for me. But I don’t shy away from tough decisions.”
The passage of the bill Friday came on a busy day for Bermuda legislators who also moved on another issue that has been talked about in Cayman for several years by decriminalizing small amounts of cannabis.
The Misuse of Drugs (Decriminalisation of Cannabis) Amendment Act will decriminalize possession of less than 7 grams of cannabis in Bermuda.