MPs approve historic Human Rights Act changes
Parliament has passed landmark legislation prohibiting sexual orientation discrimination, following after a nine-hour debate yesterday.
While there were some dissenting voices, the majority of MPs spoke in favour of the Human Rights Amendment Act 2013 which added sexual orientation discrimination to the list of prohibited grounds of discrimination. Age discrimination was also prohibited in all areas except the workplace.
And the measures provide for the Human Rights Commission to mediate discrimination complaints and updated the 1981 law with more appropriate language.
But, as expected, it was the controversial “two words and a comma” amendment, to prohibit discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation, that dominated the day’s proceedings.
“There are a lot of people in this country that rightly see this as the historic day that it is,” said Attorney General Mark Pettingill.
“We know that today is about two words and a comma.”
But Opposition MP Derrick Burgess lambasted the Government for not prohibiting age discrimination in employment, saying it took a higher priority than sexual orientation discrimination.
And the Progressive Labour Party criticised the Government for what it said was poor drafting in its effort to expand the definition of harassment.
Yesterday’s bill was piloted through the House by Community Development Minister Wayne Scott.
In his opening remarks, Mr Scott addressed the “slippery slope” argument — anxiety that the measure will open the way to same sex marriage.
“As has been repeatedly reinforced, this amendment is not about gay rights, or same sex rights, it is about human rights, and about honouring the commitment we have made to ensuring against discrimination on this basis.
“To be clear, this government considers marriage to be between a man and a woman only.”
But Opposition Progressive Labour Party MP Wayne Furbert’s attempt to introduce an amendment specifically prohibiting same sex marriage failed when three PLP MPs — Walter Roban, Walton Brown and Michael Scott — voted with the Government to defeat Mr Furbert’s motion.
Mr Furbert’s amendment would have provided that the Human Rights Act provisions could not override the Matrimonial Causes Act which voids same sex marriage.
But in a 15-14 vote, the Opposition defeated Government’s motion to remove its own clause expanding the definition of harassment — Government backbencher Kenneth Bascome was absent from the Chamber when the motion was voted upon.
Government had initially sought to expand the scope of the harassment prohibition to include all areas beyond the workplace. But it subsequently decided to remove the entire amendment when advocacy groups raised concern over a subsection which they said would allow the police to harass people.
Attorney General Mark Pettingill told the House that Government now intended to bring a separate law addressing harassment as it was feared that the Human Rights Commission might be inundated with complaints about harassment.
“Its not in the right place. It could be in a better place. If we leave it in there, its going to create a plethora of problems,” said Mr Pettingill.
Opposition MPs argued against withdrawing the amendment saying only the offending section should be removed.
Shadow Attorney General Kim Wilson said it made no sense to expand protections on the grounds of sexual orientation and age while leaving people without protection if they are harassed.
“We talking about anti-discrimination, we’re talking about making sure people have all their inalienable rights protected but yet lets leave them unprotected,” agreed Lawrence Scott.
“That’s like saying we know that there’s a prowler in the neighbourhood but I can’t afford an alarm right now and I’m going to leave my house unlocked and just hope that nobody breaks in.”
Mr Pettingill told The Royal Gazette following the debate that the harassment provision will be rectified in the Senate. It is understood that the bill will be taken up in the Upper Chamber on Wednesday.
Former PLP MP Renee Webb, whose 2006 attempt to pass the “two words and a comma” amendment was met with silence in the House of Assembly, congratulated activists Minister Scott and the One Bermuda Alliance Government.
“Minister Scott and the OBA Government are to be commended for taking up the helm of something that the Progressive Labour Party never had the courage to do,” she said.
Ms Webb added: “For me personally, it has been a long journey of not only fighting for the rights of my fellow Bermudians but also one of principle.”
Many shared her view in Parliament yesterday. Mr Pettingill said it had been a “day of triumph” in contrast to that “day of shame” when Ms Webb brought her private members’ bill and politicians on both sides of the aisle gave it the silent treatment.