The U.K. government is facing a cross-party backlash for its failure to intervene as Bermuda became the first territory in the world to “repeal“ gay marriage rights.
The governor of Bermuda, John Rankin, last week ratified a decision in the country’s legislature to replace gay marriage with “domestic partnerships.”
The decision attracted international condemnation and calls for the U.K. to step in and make same-sex marriage legal across its territories.
The furor over the Bermuda decision is also bringing fresh international attention to the rest of the U.K.’s Caribbean territories – where there are even fewer rights for same-sex couples.
Bermuda is the only British territory in the region to have any formal framework for same-sex unions.
The Cayman Islands, British Virgin Islands, Anguilla, Turks and Caicos and Montserrat do not recognize the rights of gay couples, though many legal experts believe the laws in those countries would not withstand a court challenge.
Cayman Islands-based researcher and campaigner Leonardo Raznovich said the “appalling” decision in Bermuda set a terrible precedent that would do little to advance the cause of same-sex couples in Britain’s territories. He called on the U.K. government to take on the issue and bring an “order in council” to mandate equal marriage rights as it did in 2001 to force its territories to legalize homosexuality.
James Austin-Smith, chairman of the Human Rights Commission in the Cayman Islands, told the Cayman Compass last month that Cayman’s position on same-sex unions was out of step with the European Convention on Human Rights and he believes any couple that brought a legal challenge would “definitely win.”
Bermuda was forced to recognize the rights of gay couples to marry after a Supreme Court decision in May 2017.
But politicians in the territory tweaked legislation to essentially ban gay marriage once again and introduce a new “Domestic Partnerships Bill,” which offers same-sex couples the right to civil unions, with many of the same rights.
Bermuda’s Governor Rankin signed the bill into law last week, prompting a debate in the U.K. Parliament.
Prime Minister Theresa May said she was “seriously disappointed” about the decision but indicated the U.K. would continue to respect the rights of its territories to make their own decisions.
“That bill has been democratically passed by the Parliament of Bermuda, and our relationship with the overseas territories is based on partnership and respect for their right to democratic self-government,” she said in a statement to the U.K. media.
MPs on all sides criticized the decision and called it a backward step.
Labour MP Chris Bryant said the law reversal will make Britain a “laughing stock in the international human rights field.”
Mr. Raznovich, a former law professor at the Truman Bodden Law School in Grand Cayman, successfully forced a change in policy in 2016 to allow same-sex couples, married in other jurisdictions, to have their partnerships recognized for immigration purposes.
He said the Bermuda decision, which walks back an order of the Supreme Court, showed a disregard for the rule of law and could be open to legal challenge. The U.K.’s endorsement of a law that removes established legal rights, verified by a court decision, is disturbing and unprecedented, he added.
Mr. Raznovich acknowledged that if Cayman’s legislature were to introduce equivalent legislation to Bermuda’s domestic partnerships bill, it would be welcomed by the gay community.
“It would be a great step forward,” he said, “but why would they do that?
“After this decision by the U.K., they have taken away the urgency for the Legislative Assembly to act. Now they know they can do nothing and wait for a legal challenge. If it goes against them, they can then take the Bermuda bill and give a second-class ticket [to gay couples] ….”
The lawyer, now part of a research team investigating the 11 countries in the Caribbean that still outlaw homosexuality, said it was time for the U.K. to step in with an “order in council” to end the debate once and for all.
Outside of the Caribbean, all U.K. territories – even the remote South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands, which has a population of 30 – allow same-sex marriage. The Dutch and U.S. dependent territories in the Caribbean have all legalized same-sex marriage.
Mr. Raznovich added, “All political parties [in the U.K.] have said they can’t believe what has happened in Bermuda.
“I would not be surprised if the U.K. now steps in and issues a same-sex marriage act for the territories. It would be a commonsense step.”