Bermuda groups assail vote to rescind same-sex marriage rights

Washington (AFP) –


A vote by Bermuda's lower chamber to rescind same-sex marriage rights granted only months ago has drawn sharp criticism from island groups and many politicians in the British overseas territory.

The House of Assembly voted late Friday, by a margin of 24-to-10, to replace same-sex marriage rights with a domestic partnership status.

Jeffrey Baron, shadow minister for national security, told AFP that if ultimately approved, the bill would cast a stain on Bermuda and its legislature as the first "ever to re-ban same-sex marriages."

The bill still requires passage by Bermuda's 11-member Senate as well as the signature of the island's governor. The outlook is unclear.

Same-sex marriage has been legal in Bermuda, an island of some 65,000 people, since a Supreme Court justice ruled to that effect in May. The new legislation would not strip those couples who have married since then of their legal status.

Still, the turnabout -- engineered by a government that came to power in July, and supported by many socially conservative churches -- appears unusual.

Some Bermudans said it could tarnish the reputation of the popular tourist destination. Kevin Dallas, head of the Bermuda Tourism Authority, said the island was committed to offering "warm and welcoming experiences for all visitors."

- The rights of minorities -

Rights groups expressed outrage over the bill, with some blaming the church groups.

"This is a national embarrassment, turning Bermuda -- who bills itself as a 21st century place to do business -- into a theocracy," said Jordan Sousa of the island's Gay Straight Alliance.

But members of Parliament from the governing Progressive Labor Party defended the bill, saying it would grant same-sex couples an array of legal rights -- more than they enjoyed before May.

"After this bill passes," said member Lawrence Scott, "they have the benefits and just not the name marriage. The benefits are what they really want," the Royal Gazette website quoted him as saying.

Former premier and current MP Michael Dunkley took an opposite position. "The rights of minorities are important," he told AFP, "and the majority shouldn't trample on them."

Bermuda conducted a referendum on same-sex marriage in June 2016. A majority of those voting opposed both same-sex marriages and same-sex civil unions, but since fewer than half of eligible voters took part, the results were deemed invalid.

Then in May of this year, Judge Charles-Etta Simmons of the island's Supreme Court ruled in a case involving a local couple that "same-sex couples are entitled to be married" under Bermuda law.

The website of a key group supporting the new bill, Preserve Marriage Bermuda, says marriage should be "upheld as a special union ordained by God between a man and a woman," and argues that this "fosters moral integrity (and) strengthens the family unit."

A request for comment from the group was not immediately returned.

Bermuda is a self-governing territory but still often looks to Britain, where same-sex marriage has been legal since 2014.