A bill tabled this month in the United Kingdom House of Lords aims to legalise same-sex marriage throughout the British overseas territories, but the Governor’s Office said the bill is unlikely even to reach the debate stage — much less pass through the UK Parliament and become law.
The proposed legislation would be a welcome boost for activists who have pushed for gay rights in the Caribbean, but it has been met with opposition from at least one religious organisation in the Virgin Islands.
Premier Dr. Natalio “Sowande” Wheatley also pushed back: Though he did not take a position on same-sex marriage, he told the Beacon that he does not believe the UK Parliament should legislate for the people of the territory.
The Marriage (Same Sex Couples) (Overseas Territories) Bill 2022 was introduced in the UK House of Lords on July 7 by Lord Michael Cashman, a British actor and Labour Party politician who has long advocated for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights, including co-founding the UK LBGT organisation Stonewall.
“Currently, same-sex couples can marry in the UK but are prohibited from marrying in six British overseas territories,” Lord Cashman said in UK media reports. “This is wrong, and the UK Parliament can and should act to end this obvious inequity. I believe this bill has wide support among all those who favour equality over dis crimination and are committed to upholding fundamental human rights.”
The bill covers the VI and five other overseas territories: Montserrat, Bermuda, the Turks and Caicos Islands, Anguilla and the Cayman Islands. If passed, it would require OTs to legalise same-sex unions and provide same-sex couples with the right to marry within six months after the law takes effect.
“The governor of the territory must, by regulations published in the Gazette, make such modifications or adaptations to any existing law of the territory as appear to the governor to be necessary or expedient for bringing that law into conformity with the extension of marriage to same-sex couples,” the text of the bill states.
The bill also offers protection to religious leaders who do not wish to officiate same-sex marriage ceremonies.
‘Unlikely to be debated’
The VI Governor’s Office said the bill is unlikely to go far. “The private member’s bill from Lord Cashman is not a government bill,” the office told the Beacon in a statement.
“Backbench peers in the UK often bring forward bills, and it is unlikely to be debated or make any progress.” Nevertheless, the bill sparked controversy in the territory.
On July 11 the BVI Christian Council wrote Governor John Rankin, calling the bill “quite troubling” and complaining about a lack of discussion “with the people of the territory or its stakeholders on a matter of grave social and cultural importance.”
Claiming that Lord Cashman “is putting self-interest ahead of due respect owed to the people of this territory,” the BVICC described the proposed law as “ideological colonialism” designed to “interfere with the sovereign working of our judicial and legislative branches.”
The Governor’s Office declined to comment on the BVICC’s letter, but it told the Beacon in a statement that the UK government is “committed to equal rights for LGBT+ people.”
“The UK’s relationship with the overseas territories is based on partnership, and therefore, as policy on marriage law is an area of devolved responsibility, it should be for the territories to decide and legislate on,” the statement added.
“However, the UK continues to work with them to encourage them to put in place arrangements to recognise and protect same-sex relationships and ensure that their legislation is compliant with international human rights obligations where it is not already.”
Lawsuit against VI gov’t
Here in the VI, the issue landed in the courts last year when two women who have been legally carried under UK law since 2019 sought to have their marriage recognised in the territory.
Kinisha Forbes and Kirsten Lettsome sued the government on June 9, 2021, claiming that the registrar general denied them a marriage licence on Feb. 2 because they are of the same sex.
The defendants — who are being represented by PST Law — asked the court to declare that their marriage is valid under VI law and that prohibiting same-sex marriage is unconstitutional.
The couple also asked the court to void and declare unconstitutional section 13(c) of the 1995 Matrimonial Proceedings and Property Act, which states that a marriage will be void if “the parties are not respectively male and female.”
In their filing, the claimants argued that the prohibition of same-sex marriage contravenes several sections of the Constitution, including section nine, which declares fundamental rights and freedoms of all individuals regardless of sexual orientation.
They also cited section 12, which grants equality before the law; section 19, which protects the rights of an individual’s private life; section 20, which protects the right of every “man and woman” to marry; section 21, which protects the freedom of conscience, thought and belief; and section 26, which protects individuals from discrimination.
Privy Council rulings
PST Law did not respond to requests for comment and Ms.Lettsome declined to comment, noting that the matter is before the court.
However, two recent Privy Council rulings concerning the Cayman Islands and Bermuda suggest that the VI plaintiffs may have an uphill battle.
On March 14, the Privy Council ruled that the Cayman Islands Constitution does not provide a right for same-sex marriage, as it dismissed an appeal brought by a female couple seeking the right to marry in the territory, according to the Cayman Compass.
Instead, the Privy Council ruled that the right to marriage under the territory’s Bill of Rights is confined to opposite sex couples.
The judges added that this interpretation of the Bill of Rights does not prevent Cayman’s parliament from introducing legislation recognising same-sex marriage. The parliament, however, has not done so.
Similar events played out in Bermuda. There, same-sex marriage was legalised in May 2017 after a male couple successfully sued the government. But the territory’s parliament responded later that year by passing a law to ban same-sex marriage and establish domestic partnerships instead.
The ban was challenged in two lawsuits, and same-sex marriage remained legal in Bermuda while the matter worked its way up to the Privy Council.
On March 14 — the same day as the Cayman ruling — the Privy Council ruled in favour of the Bermuda government, and same-sex marriage was banned once again.
This month, however, the Bermuda legislature passed an amendment that validated same-sex marriages carried out during the five-year legal battle.
Mr. Solomon reported this article from Guyana, and Freeman Rogers contributed.