Conscience vote on domestic partnership Bill
A Bill designed to replace same-sex marriage with domestic partnerships is set to be approved without amendment by MPs tomorrow, despite criticism from across the community.
Groups on both sides of the divide called for the Domestic Partnership Act 2017 to be altered before it becomes law, but sources told The Royal Gazette yesterday that it was not likely to be changed.
It is understood that the vote tomorrow will be one of conscience for the Progressive Labour Party's 24 MPs — the Speaker of the House would be required to vote only in the event of a tie — as opposed to a vote along party lines.
But two government backbenchers told The Royal Gazette that no PLP representatives were likely to oppose the Bill.
One predicted that home affairs minister Walton Brown, who tabled the legislation on November 24 after a two-week public consultation period, would “prevail”.
Another said the legislation would pass because there was “no dissension within the ranks”.
Preserve Marriage, a group opposed to gay marriage and civil unions, asked on Tuesday for the Bill to be widened in scope to allow people not in an “intimate relationship” with one another to get legal benefits of domestic partnership such as next of kin and inheritance rights.
The Centre for Justice, meanwhile, urged the Government to withdraw a section of the bill giving primacy over the Human Rights Act to a clause in the Matrimonial Causes Act which makes marriages void unless between a man and a woman.
The civil liberties organisation said the section would “roll back ... those rights” conferred to same-sex couples by the landmark Supreme Court judgment in May this year which paved the way for gay marriages.
The Human Rights Commission and the Rainbow Alliance of Bermuda have also criticised the Bill.
They said it was a “removal of rights” for gay couples.
Preserve Marriage president Melvyn Bassett said yesterday that he believed the Bill would pass in its present form whether MPs were allowed to vote with their conscience or under orders from the party whip.
Dr Bassett said he liked to think there would be a PLP MP with a strong enough view against same-sex marriage to propose the amendment requested by Preserve Marriage.
But he added he was not hopeful and predicted that even junior finance minister Wayne Furbert, the party's most vocal opponent of gay marriage and civil unions, will vote in favour of the Bill.
Dr Bassett said: “He fears that if anything is added there might be some argument over the amendment. So he and others are saying ‘let's make sure this thing passes'.”
Dr Bassett said Preserve Marriage viewed the Domestic Partnership Act as creating a union “almost identical to marriage” and that was unacceptable.
He said a better solution would be to create an entirely different kind of legal partnership, available to everyone, whether or not they were in an “intimate relationship”.
Dr Bassett added removal of the “intimacy” aspect of the Bill would make the law less likely to be challenged in court.
He said: “Preserve Marriage agrees that under the European Convention, the Government is required to acknowledge same-sex couples by providing them with legal rights but those rights are very similar to what others could benefit from.
“Two sisters, for example, could choose to enter into a partnership for legal reasons if they wanted to own property together.
“If there is a parallel to marriage, it will open government up to legal challenges. We are suggesting they could eliminate the legal challenge. We don't want to fight in court on a parallel Act. It would seal it, I think.”
Lawyer Rod Attride-Stirling, who represented the HRC in the civil proceedings that led to the judgment on same-sex marriage, said MPs should think long and hard before approving the Domestic Partnership Act.
Mr Attride-Stirling said: “There is lawful same-sex marriage in Bermuda and there have been several marriages now, so the Government is taking away a right that exists.
“If the Supreme Court had not already ruled on this, then the position would be very different. In that instance, the previous government's civil unions Bill would have been seen as giving something, where there was nothing.
“However, what is happening now is that the Government is giving something that's secondary, the right to a domestic partnership, and taking away something primary, the right to marriage.”
Mr Attride-Stirling added: “The fact that no country in the world has ever done this should give us pause. We will look foolish and oppressive, at a time when we can ill-afford this, in the light of everything going on and the spotlight shining on us for other reasons.”
He said the May judgment declared all same-sex marriages involving Bermudians were lawful, whether here or overseas, if they took place after the Human Rights Act was amended in 2013 to outlaw discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation.
Mr Attride-Stirling said: “There are a bunch of marriages that have taken place here since the judgment. But there is a much larger number of marriages that have taken place overseas since 2013.
“Those earlier marriages were effectively declared to be lawful by the judgment and this Bill does not recognise that.
“It protects those marriages that took place after the judgment but it does not protect the earlier marriages that took place overseas. That's a serious technical problem as it is rendering lawful marriages unlawful, that is, taking away crystallised rights, which would be unconstitutional.”
Deputy Opposition leader Leah Scott said the One Bermuda Alliance opposed the Bill and that its 12 MPs would vote against it on party lines.
She said: “It won't be a conscience vote.”
David Burt, the Premier, told The Royal Gazette in July that his opposition to civil unions had “not changed”.
He told Bermudian students in London last week: “We are making sure we carry out our platform promise that same-sex couples and heterosexual couples have similar legal protection under the law.”