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Catholic church withdraws from case against UNIBAM Print E-mail

The Roman Catholic Church has decided that it will no longer participate in the appeal of the Section 53 Judgment, which makes anal sex between consenting adults legal. That ensures that the August 2016 decision from Chief Justice Kenneth Benjamin is now final, and binding.

Readers will remember that on August 10, 2016, Chief Justice Benjamin delivered a landmark ruling in the lawsuit which the gay rights activist, Caleb Orozco brought. He challenged the Section 53 of the Criminal Code, which criminalized “carnal intercourse against the order of nature”.

After waiting more than 3 years for that decision, Orozco won a big victory. Immediately after its delivery, the Barrow Administration came under intense public pressure from all the church organizations. Initially, the Government was not going to appeal the outcome of this case, but the churches insisted. So, after consulting them, the Prime Minister decided that the Government would only make a limited appeal based on Chief Justice Kenneth Benjamin’s interpretation of sex in his judgment to include sexual orientation.

From the judgment, the Chief Justice reasoned, “I accept… that the word ‘sex’ in section 16(3) of the Constitution is to be interpreted to extend to ‘sexual orientation’.”

So, the Government agreed with the church that they would appeal the new interpretation of “sex” in Section 16 of the Constitution.

The Anglican Church, which was an original interested party in the Supreme Court case, informed the nation very early that they would not be participating in the appeal. The National Evangelical Association of Belize was not able to join the litigation because they were not a party to the original case. So, all the religious organizations were throwing their support behind the Roman Catholic Church, which indicated that they would take up the Government’s offer to appeal the entire judgment.

The case made its way into the Appeal Court, and in the case management conference hearings held last month, the Catholic Church did not meet the court’s deadlines for submissions. Their attorney on record also requested to be removed from the record. So, they had no legal arguments and no lawyer to prosecute the appeal on their behalf, the Court of Appeal asked them to state their intention in this case. After all, the entire appeal hinged on the Catholic Church’s pressing the case as the appellants. On Friday, March 2, their new attorney, Phillip Zuniga, wrote to the court and to the other litigants in the case, informing them that the Catholic Church would no longer participate in this appeal.

On behalf of the church, Zuniga wrote, “Take notice that the Roman Catholic Church, the Appellant in Civil Appeal Number 31… hereby wholly withdraws its appeal against the Respondent.”

All the Church organizations which pushed the Government of Belize to appeal, and continue an expensive exercise in litigation, are no longer willing to go the long haul.

When the case was called up for report on Tuesday, March 6, before the Court of Appeal, the attorney for the Catholic Church repeated their position to the panel of judges presiding over the case.

It was at that point that the President of the Court, Justice Manuel Sosa, communicated clearly to Solicitor General Nigel Hawke, the Government attorney in this case, that from their perspective, this appeal is over, and that the court would not wish to expend its limited time and resources to adjudicate on the Chief Justice’s interpretation of sex to include “sexual orientation”. The President did also say that if the Government, after consideration, still wanted to argue that appeal ground, that the court would give audience. He also, in diplomatic terms, suggested that the Government reconsider whether or not there is need to continue this case.

Outside of court, Lisa Shoman, UNIBAM’s attorney told the press, “What the President of the Court of Appeal was communicating to the Solicitor General is that the State should consider very carefully its options as to whether it wishes to proceed, because in the words of the President, one of the principal participants had now left the stage, and that it was virtually the view of the Court that the State stands alone… Courts do not deal with academic matters. There must be a real live issue…The Court has a full docket. The Court has an obligation to manage its scarce resources, as best it can, and we really think this is one in which usefully, the Attorney General might wish to consider their options as to whether they continue or not.”

So, with this recent hearing before the Court of Appeal, it is established that the ruling of the Supreme Court Stands. Anal sex between consenting adults will remain legal, and the Court of Appeal will wait to hear the Government’s position on their limited appeal. If the Government drops that appeal, then the case concludes completely. If it does not, then the Court of Appeal will hear arguments on whether or not “sex” should be interpreted to extend to sexual orientation in 16(3) of the Constitution. Either way, Caleb Orozco’s victory in the court stands.

Orozco, the man who challenged the anti-sodomy law and won, said, “When the Catholic Church decided to withdraw, it finally reflected the values of compassion, service, and impacting the lives of people in a way that cannot be described, only felt.”