BELIZE CITY, Mon. June 12, 2017–Less than a year after the church-state commission was constituted, two of the six church entities representing some of the biggest churches in the country have withdrawn amid an impasse over key issues which have arisen following the 2016 decision by Chief Justice Kenneth Benjamin to strike down Belize’s sodomy law.
Those commission members are Rev. Phillip Wright, head of the Anglican Diocese of Belize, and Rev. Roosevelt Papouloute, president of the Belize Council of Churches (The Council of Churches additionally represents the congregations of the Methodists, Salvation Army, Presbyterians, and the Chinese Christian Mission in Belize, as well as two organizations: the YWCA and the Black Cross Nurses), of which Wright is also vice president.
“I don’t want anybody to get the impression that we are sabotaging the work of the Commission,” Papouloute told Amandala today.
“If the rest of the Commission wants to meet and formulate something, we have no problem with that,” he added.
According to Papouloute, while there was never a vote on any issue, the members of the Commission tried to reach consensus on key issues. They could not, and so the two members felt that they were not being heard during the discussion process as a minority of the 6 entities.
The Belize Council of Churches accepted Papouloute’s recommendation that the two entities withdraw from the church-state commission.
“We felt we were not going anywhere,” Papouloute said.
He explained that the commission was formed after Benjamin’s ruling on section 53 of Belize’s Criminal Code. Amandala readers will recall that this ruling meant that consensual sexual acts between adults, no matter what their sex, could no longer be criminalized by 10-year sentences; although Belize had not routinely been applying the provision (in its criminal law) to consenting adults. The decision arose after a constitutional challenge was mounted by Caleb Orozco, a homosexual man.
After the ruling was handed down, there was also talk of possible challenges to Belize’s Marriage Act, and so members of the church community raised concerns that marriage could also be reinterpreted as not being limited to a man and a woman.
The main item which has been discussed by the commission was the gender policy, which raised controversy some years ago because of suggestions that it was crafted to expand the meaning of gender, as traditionally applied in Belize, to include groups within the LGBT community.
Although the churches broadly believe that the Scriptures which they teach state that sex is an act between a man and a woman, Papouloute told us that those Scriptures do not say that because homosexual acts are contrary to the teaching that such persons no longer have a place in society.
“We are all sinners, but we all have a place in society… God hates the sin, but doesn’t hate the sinner,” he said.
We asked if the definition of marriage was dealt with by the commission, and he told us that they have not dealt with it deeply enough, although from what he knows of the proceedings of the commission, they continue to hold that marriage is between a man and a woman.
Papouloute and Wright have both indicated that they will continue, outside of the framework of the commission, to convey their positions and recommendations to Prime Minister Dean Barrow, who commissioned its establishment.
A source close to the commission opines that the groups may be able to exercise more clout by going directly to the Prime Minister with their positions and recommendations.
Deputy Prime Minister Patrick Faber, who has chaired the commission, has been joined by Minister of State Tracey Taegar Panton as government’s representatives on the commission.
The remaining church partners on the commission are the Belize Association of Evangelical Churches, the Belize National Evangelical Association, the Alliance of Pastors (led by Patrick Menzies), and the Roman Catholic Church. The Roman Catholic Church is also a member of the Belize Council of Churches, but unlike the Anglicans, they have remained on the Commission.
Last month, Faber said that the work of the commission should have concluded by June 7. One of the outputs expected is a new version of Belize’s gender policy.
NEAB president, Pastor Lance Lewis, issued a statement on Friday, June 9, saying, “We were deeply saddened to hear of Bishop Phillip Wright and Bishop Papouloute’s sudden withdrawal from the Commission as valued partners. As all involved would testify, the Commission’s 9 months were full of respectful, cordial discussions with a spirit of teamwork. We would like to see the Commission fulfill its purpose, inclusive of all members.”
“With Catholics and Evangelicals making up 68% of the Belizean populace (by 2010 Census) there is a strong basis for the continuity of the Commission and completion of assignment,” said Lewis.14