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Posted: 20th June, 2014

Author: Nuri Muhammad

We find ourselves in a dilemma in Belize today; are we a nation
of God or a nation of laws? The answer is not as easy as some would
believe. Belize is in a transitional time warp that can be better
understood if we saw our collective consciousness in two parts:
pre-independence and post-independence.
If the same question
was posed fifty years ago the answer would be resound: we are a nation
of God! While we were never a theocracy by any means, the Christian
religious values which underpinned our collective value system made it
no question that the majority of us acknowledge the supremacy of God in
our personal and collective lives and thus it is not surprising that
that God consciousness forms a part of the first principle in the
preamble of our constitution. During those days none would have dared
challenge the constitutionality of that fundamental principle, out of
reverence, or out of fear of being ostracized by this powerful
collective consciousness. Questioning God was evidence of blasphemy.
Ask the same question today, however, and the answer is less
convicted. Post independent Belize has evolved a new set of values that
challenges some of the old values that were taken for granted in
pre-independent Belize. One such conflict is in the answer to this
simple, yet complex question: are we a nation of God or a nation of
laws?
Clearly the politically correct answer is we are a nation
of laws governed by the principles of our constitution and all the
conventions and declarations we have signed. So while the
acknowledgement of God remains the first principle of the document the
definition of supremacy is intrinsically challenged by other principles
contained in the body of the document itself, especially those which
says that every citizen has equal human rights under the law.
The reason there was no challenge to the legal definition of
supremacy in pre-independent Belize was because supremacy meant that
God’s moral code, as outlined in the Old Testament of the Bible,
underpinned all our laws and the preservation of public morality was
based on those religious principles. While the principle of privacy was
respected in pre-independent Belize, if there was evidence of any
display of public immorality there was an immediate reaction from the
public and the law.
This is not the case in post-independent
Belize. Our social rules are no longer governed by strict adherence to
the old definition of public morality as defined in Judo-Christian
ethics. In an era where soft and sometimes hard core pornography can be
seen by 24 hours cable channels; where graphic dancehall lyrics coupled
with hard-core sexually suggestive videos can be consumed on public
media without censorship, where women and children continue to be
victims of sexual assault, Belize, as far as public morality, now find
itself at a place where the question again arises: are we a nation of
God or a nation of laws.
The gauge for public display of
immorality has been so totally blurred today that the definition of what
is morally right or wrong is now reduced to personal opinion and
protected by the constitutional principle of freedom of conscience. And
if you want to extend your peculiar definition of morality to a group
of like minds, you are protected by the constitutional principle of
freedom of association.
While these constitutional protections
are enshrined within our constitution our exercise of those freedoms
was different in pre independent Belize. There would have never been a
UNIBAM challenge in a Supreme Court of pre independent Belize. Same
people, same country, but different times. While there were the
cross-dressing “Carmen Mirandas and Shirleys” in pre-independent Belize
there was no perceived threat from their lifestyle as there now appears
to be in post-independent Belize with the mob attack on “Vanessa
Champagne Paris”.
This mob attack was indicative of this
underlying clash of old values versus new values. The mob, and the
spectators who did nothing to intervene, felt the victim deserved his
‘punishment’ for breaking “God’s law” which condemns men wearing women’s
attire. The mob’s attack was spontaneous and irrational but fueled by
an innate sense of rightness and justice in their action. So despite
church leaders later distancing themselves from the actions of the mob
it was clear that the root justification for this mob attack was
religious.
The law on the other hand takes the view that there
is never justification for assault on a person regardless to your
personal or collective disagreement with them. So despite the moral
indignation of the mob and onlookers at the behavior of ‘Vanessa’ and
their Old Testament instinct to punish him, the law protects ‘Vanessa’
and condemns the actions of the mob.
It was said by one
esteemed Jurist that you cannot legislate morality. By this I think he
meant you cannot set out laws governing how individuals will choose to
act or not act on a particular moral question since moral conscience is
the preview of the individual and no one has a right to direct a
persons’ conscience – each is personally responsible; this is a
principle in law.
Following this reasoning then, the
proponents for repealing S53 say that, “to legislate that a certain kind
of moral behavior is illegal, based on “God’s law”, is
unconstitutional. The state cannot legislate a person’s moral behavior
or prevent a person from behaving in a certain way as long as those ways
do not affect the rights of others or disrupt the public good”.
While the proponents for keeping S53 as is say, “But isn’t it
equally true that if you can’t legislate morality, you also cannot
legislate the acceptance of a behavior that a sizeable part of the
population finds repugnant and therefore, immoral? Can the state
legislate that my child be taught certain material I find immoral; does
the state have the right to legislate a morally offensive agenda? Isn’t
this the same principle in reverse?”
This is an example of
the conundrum that Caribbean Jurist faces today. The legal traditions
of the west are based on Judo-Christian ethical foundations and have
always had moral and ethical excellence as the goals of good governance.
However, as western societies have evolved over the last century they
have moved drastically away from a God centered society to a man
centered paradigm with a result that “God”, as perceived in the
traditional Judo-Christian ethical frame, is no longer the source of
law: this has been replaced by a UN system of declarations and
conventions called ‘human rights’ which are enshrined in the
constitutions of most former colonial states in the region.
What does this all mean for us in Belize, in 2014, and how do we answer
the question: are we a nation of God or a nation of laws today? Clearly
our recent history shows that we lean more to the latter definition, but
are the two mutually exclusive or is it possible to be both? The
dynamics surrounding the UNIBAM case brings that question into sharp
focus. The battle lines are drawn and the long awaited decision of the
Chief Justice will be interpreted as an affirmation of one or the other.