The Human Rights Commission (HRC) has warned that the proposed Domestic Partnership Act put forward by Home Affairs Minister Walton Brown , will strip the rights of same-sex couples because it has the potential of making their unions void or unrecognisable in other jurisdictions.

While the proposed Act makes what they term “a sincere effort” to recognise same-sex marriages, the HRC expressed disappointment that the Act was introduced after Bermuda’s Supreme Court case legalised same-sex marriages in Bermuda.

In a statement released today, the HRC said: 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.”

As a result, the HRC has called for a longer period of consultation on the “controversial issues” for “comprehensive analysis and feedback from the public and other stakeholders”. The HRC has also called for public debates to be held at neutral venues, like schools and government buildings, rather than at religious institutions.

Junior Minister of Finance, Wayne Furbert at Government House

The watchdog group also stated 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”.

While recognising that there are “many” in the community were “strongly against” same-sex marriages based on religious and moral beliefs, in some cases, the HRC said: “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.”

And while the Act offers the ability for heterosexual and same-sex couples to form legal partnerships which grants “them most of the rights afforded to traditional marriages”, the HRC noted that there are significant differences.

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

Additionally, there is no ability to dissolve a union based on the adultery of a partner, under the proposed legislation, unlike under the Matrimonial Causes Act where adultery is listed as grounds for divorce, right up there with irreconcilable differences.

The new Bill was tabled six months after the Supreme Court ruling by Puisne Judge Charlesetta Simmons cleared the way for same-sex couples to marry in Bermuda.

Since then, there have been six same-sex marriages performed in Bermuda. To date, seven banns have been published, with a maritime same-sex marriage pending.

While the  HRC applauded the Minister’s bid to provide “protection for and recognition of same-sex unions”, the Commission 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”.

Sessions House, Bermuda

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

The HRC “has held a longstanding view that, at a minimum, Bermuda should have a form of legal recognition of same-sex couples functionally equivalent to marriage for those who wish to commit to each other in this way.

“Our view is informed by the European Convention on Human Rights which have ruled that same-sex couples have a right to have legally recognised partnerships which provide the same rights and privileges obtaining to traditional marriages.”

The statement continued: “We feel the proposed Domestic Partnership Act makes a sincere effort to create a legal category which is functionally equivalent to marriage and we understand but are 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.

“We also feel strongly that controversial issues should be given a consultation period longer than the current two weeks to allow for a comprehensive analysis and feedback from the public and other stakeholders.”

The statement stressed that “presently , same-sex marriage is legal in Bermuda”. 

“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 Commission recognises that many in our community are strongly against the idea of same-sex marriage because of their religious beliefs and that still others are deeply uncomfortable with the thought of such unions as incompatible with their moral beliefs.

“Everyone has a right to hold benefits 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.”

And while “there are other less material issues” which the HRC has “raised to the Minister’s attention”, a full list can be obtained by contacting the Human Rights Commission on 295-5859.

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