Speaker McKeeva Bush said Thursday he had received a “faux apology” from Human Rights Commission chairman James Austin-Smith over his statement criticising government’s decision to appeal the historic court ruling that legalised same-sex marriage in the Cayman Islands.
Bush said he could have taken a heavier hand with Austin-Smith, suggesting his comments were in contempt of the Legislative Assembly, and potentially rose to the level of a criminal offence that could have warranted prison or a fine.
But he said the House had “more serious issues to deal with than an upstart who rejects God Almighty”.
He added that Austin-Smith, whose tenure as chairman of the commission officially comes to an end in six weeks, would be gone from the role soon in any case.
In its original statement, the Human Rights Commission said government’s decision to appeal Chief Justice Anthony Smellie’s landmark ruling was “ill-considered” and suggested the case against same-sex marriage was “weak to the point of being inarguable”.
Bush took offence to those comments and other remarks in the commission’s press release and suggested Austin-Smith should be dismissed from the role.
In a letter to Austin-Smith, published on the Human Rights Commission’s website, he wrote that the commission’s statement was a “direct insult” to the legislators and brought the Legislative Assembly into “odium, contempt, [and] ridicule” and was an “attempt to lower its authority”.
Bush added in the letter, “Your statement coming from such an important constitutional body cannot be tolerated. The House could have employed a more drastic legal process. Instead it resolved to temper the desire of some members and instead demanded an unconditional apology.”
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The response from Austin-Smith, also posted on the website, simply states that the press release was issued in accordance with the commission’s mandate.
It adds, “I do not agree that there is anything within the press release which could have been construed as an insult or resulted in ‘odium, contempt, [or] ridicule’ being brought upon the House, and, certainly, I can assure you that that was not its intent.”
Austin-Smith was appointed to the Human Rights Commission in April 2014, becoming chairman in January 2015 for a three-year term. Since January 2018, he has been operating in the role under temporary extensions to the appointment, the latest of which runs out at the end of May. The Constitution requires the commission to have at least “two experienced lawyers” as members and Austin-Smith, a senior associate at Campbells, has filled one of those positions during his tenure.
The Speaker, in his statement to the House on Thursday, also took issue with a Cayman Compass editorial this week that described his earlier comments calling for Austin-Smith’s dismissal as “intolerant and unfair”.
He said, “In case the Compass doesn’t know, if I were being heavy-handed or unreasonable, I would have went to a heavier recourse to a fine and six months’ imprisonment.”
He added that he could not support same-sex marriage and argued that government had every right to appeal a court decision that it did not agree with. He said the issue was about more than same-sex marriage and highlighted more general concerns about the court using its powers to amend legislation that did not accord with the Bill of Rights, suggesting this could lead to people from overseas eventually winning the right to vote or stand for office.
“If any judge has the power to amend the law in this manner, do they not realise that pure war would envelop our islands? They better check the feelings of the people. Is this what the Compass wants?” Bush asked.
He said anyone who wanted to change the laws of the Cayman Islands should put up $1,000 and run for elected office.
Despite the fact that the fight to legalise same-sex marriage is being led by a Caymanian woman, Chantelle Day, and her partner Vickie Bodden Bush, a British-Honduran national with Caymanian roots, Bush suggested the pressure for change was coming from outside influences.
He said there was nothing wrong with dredging seagrass or building skyscrapers – a reference to two projects being advanced by the Dart organisation that have drawn opposition within the community.
Repeating his fears that similar court powers could be used to change the Elections Law, he added, “Tearing up some seagrass, or going 50 storeys high, will not hurt one soul in Cayman; but changing our laws for some outsider to ‘vote and run’ will be a whole different matter. As far as I am concerned, this is an attack on our way of life, that we cannot and must not, adhere to.”
Again referencing the claim that Austin-Smith is an atheist, he said God would deal with him.
“Atheism is not our way of life, it is not something we know about,” he said. “That is his business.
“I do believe in a supreme being; what do you believe in as an atheist? I know that atheists say that they don’t believe in God, but does God believe in atheists?”