Debate on the Domestic Partnership Bill started in the Legislative Assembly on Monday.
Premier Alden McLaughlin introduced the bill, saying that it touched on the “most contentious issue” that he has seen since he entered the house 20 years ago.
The bill, which creates a legal framework for same-sex relationships, follows a Court of Appeal ruling which identified a failure by legislators to remedy the infringement of Article 8 of European Convention and Section 9 of Cayman Islands Constitution.
“Compliance with these provisions is not a matter of choice for this House or this government,” McLaughlin said. “It is a matter of law.”
As legislators, he said, “we must act now” or face the risk of having the United Kingdom impose legislation through an Order in Council regarding same-sex marriage.
McLaughlin, in his opening statement, stated, “This is not a bill about the legality or morality of homosexuality. The issue of the legality of homosexuality in these islands has been settled for almost 20 years now, as required under the United Kingdom’s Caribbean Territories (Criminal Law) Order, 2000, which took effect on 1 January, 2001.”
That act, passed in the UK by Order in Council, decriminalised homosexuality in the Cayman Islands and all the British Overseas Territories, and confirmed that homosexual acts carried out in private were not offences, provided that both parties consented.
“So, regardless of our views on homosexuality, that has been the position in our islands for 20 years. Homosexuality is not a criminal offence,” McLaughlin said.
The premier reminded lawmakers that same-sex marriages were legalised through Chief Justice Anthony Smellie’s ruling on the Chantelle Day and Vickie Bodden Bush constitutional challenge.
“That remained the law until the Court of Appeal judgment, although the provision was stayed while the appeal was being pursued. This country has had same-sex marriage legalised here at that point. I say that, because we may, if we fail to pass this bill, arrive back there very swiftly,” he said.
View the morning Legislative Assembly session:
McLaughlin urged members to be conscious of their comments during the debate. He said that, as legislators, they must follow the rule of law.
The premier said he has heard calls for a referendum on the issue at the general election, but he stated, “This is not a policy decision; this is a matter of law, a constitutional matter.”
He said he had released government members to vote, or not vote, according to their conscience, but added that there is no middle ground – either legislators observe the rule of law or not.
He told his colleagues that to wait for the UK or the Privy Council to take action is to abdicate political responsibility.
Opposition Leader Arden McLean, in his speech, highlighted the importance of the debate before the House.
“Today is a date that will long be remembered by generations to come, be it in favour or against the actions of the government,” McLean said.
He said his contribution was largely his personal views. He said he knew Opposition members had their “social and moral values” and they would express their own views.
McLean said there had been a lack of consultation on the bill and suggested it might be better to withdraw the proposed legislation and “allow the country time to come together and be consulted and informed on the matter the government is trying to achieve”.
He said if the government’s efforts to get input was “genuine”, then it would not have gazetted the bill with the consultation period.
“The government action in this case today indicates to me that they had no intention of taking consultation, seeking input, accepting input and changing the intended course of action, none,” McLean argued.
“As sensitive as this matter is, and we are here today with a bill that is contentious, divisive, that was only made know to the public on the 26th June,” he argued.
Both McLaughlin and McLean read a letter from the Cayman Ministers Association which appeared to pledge support.
McLean said the Opposition had made every attempt to get consultation and the Ministers Association gave him a letter which supported the Opposition but did not support the bill.
Pastor Torrance Bobb of the Cayman Ministers Association, speaking with Cayman Compass on Monday, said, “We are not in favour of the bill. While we understand the government’s predicament because of the ruling of the Court of Appeal … we believe that same-sex unions are not in the best interest of any country and particularly not in the Cayman Islands. We base that on the fact that the scripture of the Bible is clearly against it.”
McLean said Cayman’s ministers, in the letter signed by Bobb, said they believed making provisions for these same-sex relationships runs counter to the teachings of scripture and were not in the best interest of the islands.
McLean said each legislator is an entity, a person onto themselves and has been given the responsibility to politically lead constituents, and then the country. “If you want someone to lead you into the abyss and that is what your legacy will be, then feel free.”
George Town West MLA David Wight said he will be supporting the bill.
Describing himself as a “realist”, Wight said Cayman will have to create a balance between what it is willing to make a compromise on and accept and what it will not.
He said he believed government has created a law that achieves this in the Domestic Partnership Bill.
Deputy Premier Moses Kirkconnell also pledged his support for the bill.
He said he understood that the issue of domestic partnership stirs up strong emotion within the hearts and minds of “our people” because it affects the lives of real people “who are our neighbours, our family and our friends”.
Kirkconnell believes the bill is the “best way forward” for Cayman, as it preserves the definition of marriage and also addresses the need to give same-sex couples equal rights.
The deputy premier said there is no doubt in his mind that the UK will force Cayman to adhere to the European Convention on Human Rights.
He said if the people of Cayman refused to accept those relationships, the only option will be to withdraw from the historical alliance with the UK and become a sovereign nation.
“That is not an option, not in this time of our history,” Kirkconnell said.
North Side Ezzard Miller has also pledged his support for the bill.
While he said he is not happy with the legislation as currently written, he stressed that he was convinced that it is the right thing to do.
He said the bill provides protection for a minority group, while also providing protection to the religious officers who could face lawsuits should they refuse to perform ceremonies.
“I think it provides a reasonable and sensible alternative to marriage,” Miller said.
Next to speak was Commerce Minister Joey Hew, who suggested that the bill allows two consenting adults, for whatever reason they choose, to enter into domestic partnership to plan a life together, “to know that there will be someone there to make an end-of-life decision for them”, for example.
He pointed out that people in homosexual relations was not new in Cayman and creating a legislation to give those relationships legal standing was “unavoidable”.
He stated his intention to vote in support of the bill.
Savannah MLA Anthony Eden was the last legislator to speak before the House was adjourned for the evening. Eden has been a vocal opponent to the legalisation of same-sex unions.
In his contribution, he spoke of a number of news reports and studies that he said indicated that in several countries, such as the United Kingdom, the United States, Canada and Australia, there were efforts being made to make homosexual relationships accepted as “normal”.
He told legislators that there is a “gay agenda” under way, socially and politically, to silence the voices of people opposed to same-sex unions. He said he had been accused of “hate speech” for comments made when defending his stance on the issue previously, but insisted he had been quoting the bible, and said it was “sad” that that was considered hate speech.
Stating his intention to oppose the bill, Eden said Cayman was witnessing an “all-out war today against family and marriage”.
The debate resumes Tuesday morning.
You can follow the debate on the Cayman Compass live blog: https://www.caymancompass.com/2020/07/27/live-blog-domestic-partnership-bill-debate/