The Catholic Church hierarchy in the Central American nation of Belize has withdrawn its appeal of a 2016 judicial decision which struck down the former British colony’s anti-sodomy law. The decision to withdraw means that the overturn of the anti-sodomy law will remain in place, as the one Catholic bishop of the small nation was the last remaining plaintiff calling for a reversal of the law.
The news of this decision was greeted happily by Caleb Orozco, Belize’s leading LGBT advocate, who had worked for over a decade to help get the anti-sodomy law, a vestige of British colonial rule, overturned. According to 7NewsBelize.com, Orozco stated:
“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. One of the things I’ve come to realize after over a decade in advocacy is that legal victories by themselves don’t bring the change, and that the hearts and minds of our people need be engaged in regards to how we treat each other as citizen.”
Lisa Shoman, Orozco’s attorney also noted that they are “not seeking any kind of legal costs against the Roman Catholic Church.”
While Orozco is correct that the church’s decision exhibits some positive values, it is sad that Belize’s church leaders ever became involved in such a case. Catholic Church leaders should be working to eradicate laws which violate the human dignity of LGBT people by criminalizing them, not by trying to thwart the process of decriminalization.
The Belize Supreme Court struck down Section 53, the anti-sodomy section of the nation’s criminal code, in August 2016. Shortly thereafter, Belizean religious organizations banded together to mount an appeal of this landmark decision. Early in the process, however, both the Anglican Church and the Belize Council of Churches (representing Methodists, Salvation Army, Presbyterians, and the Chinese Christian Mission in Belize, the YWCA, and the Black Cross Nurses) stated that they did not want to be involved in the process. Because the National Evangelical Association had not been allowed to participate in the case, only the Catholic Church was left as the one group appealing the ruling.
Even before the church’s announcement of its withdrawal on March 5th, there were indications that their resolve to go ahead with the case were flagging. 7NewsBelieze.com reported:
“. . . [A]s early as the beginning of February this year it started to surface, that the Roman Catholics were not meeting deadlines as litigants in the case. They did not file their written submissions in time, and their attorney on record went before the Court of Appeal and asked to be removed as their legal representative.”
Indeed, the court also provided the church extra time to organize its legal obligations in the case.
Though there is no danger that the anti-sodomy law will be able to be judicially revived, the government of Belize will still go forward with an appeal related to this case in which they are asking the court to determine if “sex” in the nation’s constitution should also include “sexual orientation.”
Bishop Lawrence Nicasio made the right decision to withdraw the appeal. In the interest of transparency and clarity, it would have been better if he had also stated his reason for doing so, but no such explanation seems to exist. (The diocese does not have a website, and the bishop was not quoted in any of the news reports.) Such silence only fosters speculation. I would like to hope that the motivation was one based on a realization that Catholic social teaching, as well as particular teaching about homosexuality, does not condone the criminalization of people based on either sexual orientation or even sexual behavior. It would be nice to think that perhaps Pope Francis’ more tolerant and welcoming approach to LGBT people may have had an influence, too. But with no statement from the bishop, it also can look like that what might have motivated the withdrawal was simply bureaucratic mismanagement and incompetence with the legal system.
Bishop Nicasio could help to heal a lot of wounds that were opened by this case, a lot of alienated feelings that LGBT people in Belize must have experienced when they heard that a Christian Church was working against their personhood. He could start the process of healing by meeting with Caleb Orozco, and other LGBT Belizeans, to learn about the reality of their lives, the hardships they endure, they joys they experience, and the religious faith that many of them maintain. (You can read about the hardships Orozco himself had to endure because of his notoriety by clicking here.) The bishop would hear the Gospel and the Paschal Mystery reflected in many of these lives.
If the bishop decides not to do so, perhaps he could just reflect on the profound spiritual implications of a simple human rights statement that Orozco made in 2016 when the court struck down the anti-sodomy law:
“This is the first day of my life in which it is legal for me to be me.”
For Bondings 2.0’s coverage of controversies involving criminalization laws and the Catholic Church, see our category “Criminalization Laws.”
—Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry, March 8, 2018