The definition of the word “spouse” within the Domestic Banks and Financial Institutions Bill has caused concern among the churches and the legal community.
Departure from the old definition of “spouse” to a new one, not only opens the door for possible same-sex unions, but is legally inconsistent with existing legislation which defines spouse as a relationship between a man and a woman”.
The Reporter spoke with Rev. Noel Leslie, Senator representing the Council of Churches, who explained that his vote in the Senate against the Bill came solely because of the new definition of the word spouse.
Fr. Leslie said that while the churches acknowledge the need for financial institutions to be regulated, the addition of the words “other individual” in the definition gives the impression that the term spouse is being extended to include same-sex unions.
The church is expressly against same-sex unions, and Fr. Leslie said he could not have voted for the Bill knowing that it was not aligned with the beliefs of the church. He went on to say that at a time when a similar issue was before the courts, (that issue being the UNUIBAM’s constitutional challenge to the Law against homosexuality) that voting for the Bill would be sending the wrong message about the stance of the Church on this matter.
The Reporter also spoke with Senator Lisa Shoman, whose insight from a legal perspective conceded that the definition has the ability to cause “serious confusion.”
Shoman explained that the word “spouse” is already defined within the Laws of Belize. Two easily citable references are the Domestic Violence Act, and Section 148 of the Supreme Court of Judicature Act.
Ms. Shoman agreed that the effect of allowing the new definition into law would impact the laws Belize has on bigamy and on common law unions.
The new definition describes a “spouse” as “an individual person, a wife, husband, or other individual with whom the first-named natural person is engaged in an ongoing conjugal relationship, whether common-law union as defined by Section 148(D) of the Supreme Court of Judicature Act, or not, and whether or not the two persons are living together.”
Ms. Shoman explained that by this definition those persons who are having conjugal relationships with married individuals would also be considered as spouse.
The thought brings “legal absurdity” as the law would in effect contravene the existing laws on bigamy. Those in a common law union would also be affected because like marriage, union exclusivity is the essence of a common law union. For a common law union to be legal. No one in the union is to have a “spouse”, and if the Bill is signed into law, those who have ongoing relationships with multiple sexual partners would be legally unable to form common law unions.
There have been meetings with the Central Bank and government officials, and while they have all said no harm was intended, no definite answer has been given as to what will be done about the definition.
Fr. Noel Leslie has said that the Minister of Local Government, Senator Godwin Hulse was very receptive to the church objections in their meeting, and the Churches are hoping that a resolution can be arrived at quickly, so the country can move on.