OP-Ed & Features, Gender & Sexuality - Saturday, February 6, 2010 14:07
The Caribbean, religion & the legislation of sexualityBy Zak Rose, Staff writer
Even as clerics in the United Kingdom are lamenting the absence of ‘God’ in government (Times), religion still preserves some legislation in many of the states in the former British West Indies – particularly with respect to the rights of gays and lesbians. Our features writer Zak Rose makes the case against religion in government, continuing our one year advocacy campaign on the rights of sexual minorities.
Laws which criminalize and call for the punishment of homosexuality or “homosexual activity” are common in Caribbean countries. Unfortunately, this is not a unique regional attitude; such laws can be found all over the world. Many American states, for example, still outlaw “homosexual acts,” and while most of these laws are not enforced, they are clear as day in writing.
Often heard in defense of such policies (although by no means the only defense) is the invocation of popular religious beliefs. The dominant religions of many countries which outlaw homosexuality are Christianity, Judaism, and Islam which, by most interpretations, consider homosexual acts to be sinful.
The issue raises an interesting question. When it comes to contentious political issues, should arguments whose validation consists primarily of religious endorsement be accepted by lawmakers? If one wishes to avoid hypocrisy, and if one does not wish to create an oppressive legal system, the answer must be an unapologetic “no.”
Beginning with the obvious, no democratic country can justify selectively privileging religious doctrine on particular issues. That democracies are not theocracies is shown in the decision that people should be free from enforced obedience to any particular dogma. This alone makes the call to privilege religion in law hypocritical.
Moreover, the entire purpose of democracy is to avoid tyranny and oppression by ensuring that decision making power rests with people, where arguments can be presented and exchanged transparently, and where laws which are not performing adequately can be amended. To exempt any laws from analysis, justification, or challenge, to accept them as immutable and ordained from on high is downright undemocratic.
One might object and say that any behaviour is democratic so long as the majority wishes it. This, however, reflects an underdeveloped conception of democracy. Democracy is not mob rule. Substantive, functioning democracies have Constitutions, Charters, and Bills which protect certain core liberties against everything else. Such documents acknowledge that the purposes of having majority rule – purposes such as freedom from exploitation and oppression – are more important than the majority rule mechanism itself. The protection of minority rights against all forces is a common example of this. Separate and non-partisan judicial systems are another. Without these checks and balances, any system runs the risk of betraying its principles.
Any concept that is legislated should be scrutinized for what it is, and not where it comes from. To cast the point in a concrete example, consider that common marriage practices in the Western world find their origins in religious doctrine. Yet, they have undergone profound revisions as rights and liberties have evolved. Religious blueprints of marriage draw women as the property of their husbands and lacking full status as persons in their societies. Obviously, this is no longer the case. That change, however, would never have been possible if religious privileging, today being upheld by some opponents of same-sex rights, had prevailed.
There is another common point which is raised to argue that religious considerations are proper in lawmaking. That is, that many of the things we consider fundamental in human morality and some of the most basic laws, such as the prohibition of murder and theft, have their earliest codified mention in religious scripture. So, some would argue that this entrenchment of religious principles in law proves religion’s worthiness to continue as a legal standard.
This is not the case. Basic moral contentions, such as “do not slaughter your neighbour” may have religious origins, but were accepted universally so long ago that their origins are irrelevant. Their acceptance demonstrates that they have been scrutinized and analyzed for their value, and not for their source. They are part of law and common sense now, wherever they came from. Excising religion’s role in lawmaking need not remove such basic and obvious assertions.
It is impossible for a government to responsibly and safely accept religious citation as validation of an argument, even if aware of all the problems discussed so far. The moment a government approves of scriptural citation as valid form of support, it endorses whatever the source is. That creates a de facto state religion. Nor can governments simply sidestep this problem by equally acknowledging every religious source presented to it. In any democratic country some religious groups are bound to have more political clout than others. Whether it is a matter of prejudice or a matter of numbers, the lobbying power of all faiths will absolutely not be equal. Therefore, accepting endorsements from any religious source which emerges is, in fact, an insufficiently egalitarian practice; there are no doubt small or oppressed groups whose voices will not be heard. Any attempt at equal inclusion will fail before it begins. Deliberately or accidentally, some religious sources will be privileged.
Any democracy which wishes to be faithful to its principles must not accept doctrinal support as sufficient validation of an argument. To do so is to endorse and support the religion in question, and to elevate it above others. Moreover, the very practice of accepting religious validation is contrary to the ideas of transparency, discussion, and change which first prompted the move away from feudalism and absolute monarchy. The constant invocation of religious sensibilities in maintaining bans on homosexuality points out the startling fact that governments are selectively complacent about their own lawmaking. If it has a religious tag on it, it need not be thought about. This is a profoundly unsettling and irresponsible practice, and it must stop.
On World AIDS Day 2009, the Antillean took the advocacy position of equal human rights for sexual minorities in the Caribbean, a campaign that will run for each month until World AIDS day 2010.
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