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Wilkerson: Bill a step back for human rights

Vote of conscience: former senator Kim Wilkerson

Former Progressive Labour Party senator Kim Wilkerson has criticised a Bill aimed at replacing same-sex marriage with domestic partnerships as a “step back for human rights”.

Ms Wilkerson, who was instrumental last year in blocking legislation designed to restrict marriage to opposite sex couples, told The Royal Gazette she was “disappointed” and “disheartened” by the proposed law, which will be debated in the Senate today.

She predicted that the PLP’s five senators would vote in favour of the legislation and that the Bill would also win the support of enough of the three independent members to ensure its safe passage through Parliament.

“I don’t know how the new [PLP group in the] Senate will vote but my expectation is that they will vote in favour of it, because they are all new,” she said. “For them, it gives a set of rights, a legislated framework. They will take the view that ... that’s better than nothing at all.”

Her view differed, she said, because section 53 of the Domestic Partnership Act 2017 — which says a marriage is void unless between a man and a woman — would actively remove the right of gay couples to wed, despite a Supreme Court ruling from May this year which determined that it was discriminatory to deny them marriage.

“It’s just retrograde,” said Ms Wilkerson, who remains an active member of the PLP. “I was very disappointed, disheartened [when it was tabled]. I think it was a step back for human rights.

“I believe singularly that it must make us unique in the entire world: to have come to a place where we had marriage equality and then we take it away.”

In July 2016, Ms Wilkerson helped to quash a Private Member’s Bill tabled by fellow PLP parliamentarian Wayne Furbert.

The Bill, which sought to restrict marriage to opposite-sex couples by amending the Human Rights Act, was approved by MPs but lost by six votes to five in the Senate, with Ms Wilkerson the only PLP senator to go against it.

She said she searched her heart when deciding how to vote, ultimately deciding the “role of the legislator is to enhance and build upon the rights of citizens, not to take them away”.

Ms Wilkerson said party leader Marc Bean made clear it was a vote of conscience and she was not criticised afterwards for opposing it. “There were some who said party members were unhappy with me, within the PLP caucus. But there was no backlash whatsoever. There was a clear understanding that we — that I, at least — was going to be voting on conviction.

“I was never challenged within the PLP caucus on that and I was grateful for that.”

She said the Bill to be debated today was “very much” an attempt by the Government to strike a compromise, since so many constituents — and party members — were opposed to gay marriage.

“My sense is that a majority of people within the party probably accord with the view against same-sex marriage,” said Ms Wilkerson. “Irrespective of how I feel, an overwhelming view of constituents is that they would prefer not to see same-sex marriage legal.”

She suggested that independent senator James Jardine, who voted against Mr Furbert’s Bill, might be inclined to support domestic partnerships on the basis that they are a “reasonable middle ground that gives a legal framework” to gay couples.

Neither Mr Jardine nor fellow independent Joan Dillas-Wright, who supported Mr Furbert’s Bill, would comment on how they plan to vote today. Michelle Simmons, the other independent senator, could not be reached for comment.

Opposition Senate leader Nandi Outerbridge said it was “safe to say” the One Bermuda Alliance’s three senators would oppose the Bill. She said the party’s position was “it’s wrong to take rights away from people” and the status quo should remain.

OBA senator Andrew Simons made a plea for all his colleagues in the Upper Chamber to delay the Bill for a year by voting against it, whatever their view on same-sex marriage.

“This goes beyond politics,” he said. “The role of the Senate is not always to block legislation but delay it, at times.

“If this piece of legislation was delayed for a year, you might find that the mood of the island has changed, The need for this legislation would diminish further. People’s hearts would have softened. There would be a greater understanding.”

He noted that global opinion on gay marriage — once an “impossible idea” — had changed dramatically in the past 20 years and would continue to evolve.

“Equality doesn’t harm anyone, but for people who can suddenly get married it makes a huge change,” he said.

If the Act is approved, it will need the assent of John Rankin, the Governor, to become law. A Government House spokeswoman said: “In considering this matter, the Governor will continue to act in accordance with his responsibilities under the Constitution.”