Countdown to Tolerance

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Fri Dec 16, 2011

Maurice Tomlinson's Countdown to Tolerance: Christian Fundamentalists' Homophobia on Display

By Maurice Tomlinson

The Lawyers’ Christian Fellowship, Jamaica (LCF), in association with the international (but very secretive) Issachar Foundation (IF), held a symposium on World Human Rights Day, December 10, 2011 at the Faculty of Law of the University of the West Indies, Mona, Jamaica’s premier university. The symposium was held under the curious theme “Human Rights, Sovereignty and the Politics of Truth,” and the 200-seat auditorium was nearly packed with mostly middle-aged participants, although there were some noticeably younger persons in attendance.  

The listed presenters were Shirley Richards, co-founder of the LCF; Piero Tozzi, legal counsel for the US Christian lobbying group, Alliance Defense Fund; and Paul Diamond, a UK barrister who specializes in religious liberties cases. An unlisted presenter was Dr. Wayne West, whose slick slide presentation looped continuously on a giant screen while persons assembled and took breaks. The presentation basically characterized men who have sex with men (MSM) as disease vectors and relied on the infamous Lancet article that said HIV is “out of control” among MSM in France despite the fact that France decriminalized sodomy in the 18th century. This was clearly seen as a justification for the retention of Jamaica’s anti-sodomy law. The concluding slide asked a rhetorical question: could Jamaica afford the cost of US$19,912/patient/year for ARV that would be associated with decriminalizing sodomy? If there was room to answer the question, one possible answer would that the US$19,912 figure came from a study of health care costs in the United States and would almost certainly not apply in Jamaica, and the use of the figure amounts to scare tactics.  But while the agenda for the symposium indicated there would be questions and answers after each presentation (though tightly controlled, as shall be explained), there was no opportunity to rebut West’s presentation. During one break, the Chair of J-FLAG pointed out this inconsistency and was told that there would be no opportunity at the symposium to counter his claims. J-FLAG’s Chair noted that the slide presentation was deliberately intended to influence the audience (although “congregants” may be a more apt description, based on the “Amens” that greeted certain statements by the presenters) without the possibility for dialogue or rebuttal.

Among the persons who sacrificed an entire Saturday to be in attendance at this event (which ran from 8:30 a.m. to well after its stated end of 2:30) were two sitting judges of Jamaica’s Supreme Court, the country's Attorney General (who brought greetings on behalf of the Justice Minister), the Executive Director of the Broadcasting Commission (which regulates content distributed via the electronic media), Jamaica's Chief Parliamentary Counsel (who is responsible for drafting the country’s laws), the Legal Counsel to all Parliamentarians, the Director of the Norman Law School Legal Aid Clinic (which is responsible for training all lawyers in Jamaica) and the Executive Director of the Airports Authority of Jamaica. Special mention was made of the presence of a Jamaican couple now residing in Britain who were denied the right to foster children there because they objected to homosexuality.   

The stated aims of the symposium were to:
1) Re-examine the role of law in society;
2) Increase public awareness of the potential danger that exists if human rights are freed from their traditional moral foundations;
3) Examine the subversive effect of the “fallacies” of popular human rights rhetoric on the democracy and sovereignty of nations; and
4) Examine major human rights treaties.

During the nearly 7-hour symposium, the presenters extolled the virtues of Dominionism—the belief that countries must be governed by a conservative Christian understanding of biblical law—and cautioned (actually, more like threatened) Jamaican Christians that if they don't organize a counter-offensive against the militant gay agenda sweeping the world, their beloved country will be overrun by aberrant ideas “hell bent” on destroying marriage, children, and, of course, Christianity. One wonders where these people get their information as the Jamaican church community seems quite organized to me. Not only were they successful, as they constantly trumpet, in ensuring human rights for gays were not recognized in the constitution, they were able to get the country’s Attorney General to publicly declare at this forum that he has no intention of abiding by the Constitutional requirement to interpret human rights according to standards found in other free and democratic societies.

The law’s paternalistic purpose in preventing misguided gays and fetus-aborting feminists from self-harm was also emphasized, and although Diamond repeatedly said he did not care what two consenting adults do in the privacy of their bedrooms (curiously extolling the benefits of living in a free and open society), all presenters did express that gay sex is manifestly harmful to its practioners (as is abortion). The role of the law was defined as protecting the welfare of the common good. Therefore Jamaica’s anti-sodomy law, which sentences consenting adults to up to 10 years in prison for private sodomy, is justified by its role in preventing people (especially impressionable children) from engaging in gay sex. (Didn’t you get the memo that repealing the anti-sodomy law will lead to, on average, more gay sex? That certainly is the case in the UK, South Africa, Canada, Nepal, India, etc., etc... or at least the presenters seemed to suggest it.)

In her presentation entitled “The Role of Law in Society,” Shirley Richards sought to provide ‘natural law’ justifications for the retention of the laws against sodomy and abortion. In this quest, she ignored modern jurisprudence and relied, for example, on the 3rd edition of a core criminal  law text now in its 12th edition, which defined a crime as an action which is “morally blameworthy; a sin.” During the March 2011 revision of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, Richards and her team had successfully lobbied Jamaica’s Parliament to save laws against sodomy, abortion and “obscene publications” in the country’s constitution. However, she expressed distress that the constitution provided that the recognition of violations of human rights is still permitted, if justified by the standards in a “free and democratic society.” This, to her, undermined our sovereignty by denying Jamaicans the right to define the extent of individual rights. In her view, this could clearly open the way for the importation of dangerous liberal ideas into our constitution (such as the right to non-discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation, as is sanctioned in South Africa’s radical constitution! Shocking!). Richards needn’t have worried too much as the Attorney General in his greetings made it quite clear that he has instructed his staff that they should use Jamaican situations, not international human rights norms, to determine the extent of our rights since “we too are a democracy.” A seeming contradiction occurred when, during the question and answer section, Richards made it clear that she is “challenged” by the way some Muslim societies treat their women, but she quickly corrected by defending the right of these countries’ to make such repressive laws.  

During his two-part presentation entitled “Development of Human Rights Law,” Tozzi sought to show how the moral purposes of law had become hijacked by libertarians, such as those hippies of Bill Clinton’s generation (i.e. persons who had not served in World War II). Making no attempt to disguise his racism and Islamophobia, he said "Europe is on the verge of a demographic collapse and the UK is in ‘free fall,’ with the most popular name in the UK being Muhammad." Other gems he supplied were "All good law originates in Judeo-Christian values but there is natural law written on the hearts of all men,” and "Sharia law is anti-law, anti-reason. The only basis for it is the claim that Allah said so." He clearly missed the obvious contradiction in accepting the Bible as a source of law simply because it says it is the word of God, but why obscure a good story with facts? Listening to him I wondered, “What exactly is the basis for the Judeo-Christian morality that you are advocating for us to protect from the onslaught of a militant homosexual agenda?” The clincher for me came when Tozzi alluded to most feminists and homosexuals having experienced some abuse, which accounted for their advocacy. When I pointed out that I was raised by loving Christian parents and have never experienced any sexual abuse, and asked if he could kindly provide some examples of abused advocates, Tozzi claimed that “it’s hard to make generalizations” (duh!).  He however said that when he worked at the UN (which he argued is overrun by feminists and gays), many of those persons advocating for the human rights of gays as well as the rights of women to control their fertility had been abused.  As a Christian conservative, he surprised no one when he claimed that “many studies” show children raised by two parents of the same sex are developmentally disadvantaged. (This claim runs counter to the extensive longitudinal study by the American Psychological Association that states otherwise, but again, why cloud a good story with facts?) He concluded that these same studies found that placing children in these types of settings is “experimental” and therefore dangerous. Oh, and by the way, contraception is bad, too, because it’s leading to population collapse in Europe (just in case you missed that)!

Paul Diamond condemned Jamaican Christians for being disorganized (a strange accusation considering the ability of this group to shut-out free speech and the recognition of the human rights of gays and women from our constitution) and made an emotional appeal that they “not become like Britain.” When I asked whether he thought the murder of 16-year-old Oshane Gordon on October 18 "due to questionable relations with another man" was a result of the existence of Jamaica's anti-sodomy law, Diamond said, "That's a stupid question as the most persecuted group in the world are Christians." Of course, he provided no evidence for this assertion.

On the issue of what Jamaica should do in light of the calls by the US and the UK for decriminalization of sodomy, Richards said, to thunderous applause, "There are enough countries in the world that support us, and we should be willing to sacrifice aid from the US and UK and join a block with them.” Well, I suggest she lead the way by renouncing her US visa.

The entire proceedings were tightly controlled: Participants were required to write their questions on pieces of paper that were collected by ushers (much like a church offering) and then submitted to a moderator. The moderator then decided which questions would be read to the presenters. It was amazing that so many of our pro-LGBT questions were addressed; Richards was overheard during a break chastising a moderator that “some of those questions should not have been read.” One presenter also intoned that he was surprised that so many “un-Christian questions were being asked at a Christian symposium.” (I thought the purpose of putting up flyers to advertise the event was to allow an opportunity for all views to contend. Silly me.) Also noteworthy is that the taping of presentations was strictly forbidden (even though the news media was allowed to record some elements). One wonders if this group is genuinely interested in open dialogue around the sensitive issues of human rights, as they have said on so many occasions.

For me, the moral of this story is that another symposium that truly allows for full and frank discussions needs to be convened. What happened on Saturday was simply a travesty of ideology parading as logic. One can’t help but wonder: when a cure for HIV is discovered, what new “public interest” argument will be deployed for state-sanctioned homophobia in Jamaica?