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Warning over Domestic Partnership Act

Home affairs minister Walton Brown (File photograph)

A human rights watchdog is warning that the passage of the Domestic Partnership Act will remove rights from same-sex couples and potentially make their unions unrecognisable overseas.

In a statement released this morning, the Human Rights Commission said that while the proposed Act makes a “sincere effort” to recognise same-sex unions, it was disappointed that the Act was introduced after case law had already legalised same-sex marriage.

It added: “This means that the proposed legislation is a de facto removal of rights from same-sex couples by relegating their unions to a separate category which may not be recognised abroad.

“This is particularly important given the extent to which Bermudians travel abroad for vacation and for medical reasons. Moreover, a key part of our tourism product as a wedding destination would be undermined by the proposed change.”

The organisation called for a longer consultation period on “controversial issues” for “comprehensive analysis and feedback from the public and other stakeholders”.

Public debates, the HRC said, should be held at neutral venues — such as schools and government buildings — rather than at religious institutions where people might feel intimidated.

The organisation added that it was “unhappy with the political reality in Bermuda where such a proposal is necessary to avoid rights being stripped away completely by legislation such as the Human Rights Amendment Act proposed by Junior Minister of Finance Wayne Furbert”.

The Commission said that it recognised “many” in the community were “strongly against” same-sex marriage, in some cases due to religious and moral beliefs.

It added: “We also recognise that there are sectors of our religious community that are supportive of same-sex marriage and the public debate has been caricatured to ignore this fact.

“Everyone has a right to hold beliefs opposing same-sex marriage so long as they do not incite harm or promote hate through their speech or actions.

“However, individuals have a right to be treated equally and be protected from discrimination regardless of how unpopular such rights are and how small the number of people who hold those rights may be.”

The Act, the HRC said, offered the ability for heterosexual and same-sex couples to form legal partnerships which would “afford them most of the rights afforded to traditional marriages”.

However, there are significant differences, the HRC said.

For example, under the Domestic Partnership Act, only people 18 years and older can enter into a domestic partnership, whereas under the Matrimonial Causes Act, people between 16 and 18 years old can marry with parental consent.

As well, under the Domestic Partnership Act, no ability is provided to dissolve a union based on the adultery of a partner, unlike under the Matrimonial Causes Act where adultery is grounds for divorce.

The HRC said it had also raised “less material issues” with Walton Brown, Minister of Home Affairs.

Mr Brown unveiled the proposed legislation earlier this month. The draft Bill came six months after a Supreme Court ruling paved the way for same-sex couples to marry in Bermuda.

There have been six same-sex marriages to date in Bermuda. Seven banns have been posted, and a maritime same-sex marriage is pending.

The HRC said while it applauded Mr Brown’s “intentions and genuine effort to provide protection for and recognition of same-sex unions” it was “dismayed by the fact that he feels motivated to do so under perceived threat by other members of the House who wish to remove already established rights”.

The HRC added: “The world is watching. If we are truly to embrace the progressive mantle, we must protect everyone from discrimination and inequality.”

• To read the HRC’s recommendations, click on the PDF under “Related Media”