WASHINGTON / PORT-AU-PRINCE - An overhaul of Haiti’s penal code that punishes marriage officiants who refuse to perform same-sex weddings is provoking outcry among religious leaders in the socially conservative Caribbean nation.
The tension is emerging in a nation that has never spelled out LGBT rights and same-sex unions have never been recognized and homosexuality has never been expressly codified as illegal.
At the heart of the current discussion is the rewrite of the 185-year-old penal code, decreed by Haitian President Jovenel Moise last month. It voids the work of lawmakers who were drafting legal reforms before parliament recessed and the COVID-19 pandemic arrived in the country.
Published in an official government newsletter on June 24, the reforms would go into effect in 2022 unless a new parliament rejects the document.
Critics object to the sweeping changes issued by decree as well as the new penal code’s treatment of sexual minorities that, on paper, would make Haitian tribunals among the most LGBT-friendly in the Caribbean, a region where sexual minorities have faced centuries of repression.
Outcry from the pulpit
"The people don't need immorality, the people don't need homosexuality," Dr. Francoise St. Vil Villier, president of the National Spiritual Council of Haitian Churches, said during a press conference. "Anyway, [LGBT people] have always been here, we don't bother them, we look them in the eye. But legalizing it in Haiti? We say no."
"A penal code cannot be immoral, because its purpose is to sanction those who commit crimes against society,” countered Marie Ghislaine Monpremier, Haiti’s minister for women's affairs.
The new penal code tacitly allows homosexuality, as it contains no provisions punishing same-sex relations. And, it sets forth fines and possible prison sentences for officiants who refuse to perform same-sex weddings.
Port-au-Prince Pastor Gary St. Hubert, a Protestant, decried the provision.
"People will do what they want, but you can't legalize it," St. Hubert told VOA Creole. "You can't force me — if a man comes to my church and asks me to marry him to another man — to do it or face arrest. Then there's no democracy!"
Several pastors have given the government until July 25 to rescind the new penal code, promising street protests if no action is taken.
Human rights observers note that, as a civil matter, same-sex unions are not currently recognized in Haiti. In fact, there have seen unsuccessful legislative initiatives to fine and imprison married gay and lesbian couples over the past few years.
LGBT advocates say denunciations of the new penal code are misguided.
"There's a difference between penal code and civil code. It's the civil code which deals with marriage, not the penal code," said Djennifer Mercer in a statement posted in French on the Facebook page of Kouraj, Haiti’s most prominent LGBT rights group.
Government weighs in
Presidential Press Secretary Eddy Jackson Alexis addressed the controversy in a recent press conference and promised broader consultations with the public.
"There are lies being told about this document. They say it is what it is not," he said, adding that articles have been cited that are not even part of the penal code. "To re-establish the truth, the government will address the people. The prime minister is meeting with sectors of civic society so that they may once again express their opinions.”
Voices in Port-au-Prince
Most people VOA Creole asked about the new penal code on the streets of Port-au-Prince oppose it, reflecting views that LGBT advocates say predominate in Haiti and have long contributed to a climate of hostility towards sexual minorities.
"Was the president drunk or on drugs when he came up with this idea?" a street vendor said.
"If he signed this decree God will strike him down, because [according to the Bible] that is how Sodom's life was destroyed," a female merchant said. "We should all revolt against this document, we don't want it."