By KHRISNA VIRGIL
Tribune Staff Reporter
IN AN unexpected move yesterday, the Christie administration tabled four highly anticipated Bills in the House of Assembly that will amend the Constitution with a view to abolishing gender discrimination enshrined in the document.
The Bills, once passed in the lower chamber and agreed upon by the Senate, will enable the government to hold a referendum to alter the constitution. That referendum, Prime Minister Perry Christie told members of Parliament, is expected to take place on November 6, 2014.
Last October, Mr Christie announced that the constitutional bills would be brought to Parliament before the end of 2013 and passed by February 2014. At that time, he said the referendum would be held by June 2014. The referendum was initially expected in June 2013, to coincide with the 40th anniversary of independence, and was later put off until November 2013.
“It gives me great pleasure to foreshadow the introduction and first reading of four separate bills to amend the Constitution of the Bahamas,” Mr Christie said. These four bills, representing the first round of constitutional reform, are bound together by a common thread – the need to institute full equality between men and women in matters of citizenship and, more broadly, to eliminate discrimination in the Bahamas based on sex.
“It is the government’s intention, subject to further consultations with the Opposition, to have the four constitutional bills debated and passed in both houses of Parliament in the shortest possible time so as to maximise the time available for discussion and dialogue throughout the country in advance of a national constitutional referendum.”
Opposition Leader Dr Hubert Minnis called on all Bahamians to make a bold effort to see the Constitution reformed to incorporate equality for all and stressed that the results of the vote will be binding.
He said: “The success of this effort will require a bold and unified multi-partisan and multi-sectoral effort on the part, not just of the political parties but of civil organisations, to offer advice and support to the Commission behind the scenes.
“Those persons who might feel some way discomfited by events which have followed a recent referendum should not be in anyway discouraged. This constitutional referendum will count. The results of this referendum will be important and binding. I therefore urge every Bahamian to play a meaningful role in listening to the Parliamentary debate on the bills, reading the bills, attending educational meetings which will shortly commence, carefully considering the proposals in a non-partisan and public spirited manner, and to vote your conscience.”
First, the Bahamas Constitution Bill 2014 seeks to achieve gender equality. It would enable a child born outside the Bahamas to a Bahamian woman to have automatic Bahamian citizenship at birth. Presently, only those born in another country to a Bahamian father are able to take automatically Bahamian status, but not if the father is non-Bahamian and the mother is Bahamian.
However, Mr Christie said the change will not operate retroactively. The government will grant Bahamian citizenship to all applicants born abroad after July 9, 1973 - and before the law changes – to a Bahamian-born mother and non-Bahamian father, subject to the exceptions and in accordance with procedures already prescribed by law.
The second bill enables a Bahamian woman who marries a foreign man to secure for him the same access to Bahamian citizenship that a Bahamian man has always enjoyed under the Constitution in relation to his foreign spouse. The Bill contains provisions designed to ensure foreigners, male or female, who enter into bogus marriages with Bahamian citizens, will not be assisted by this constitutional change.
A foreign spouse who wants to acquire Bahamian citizenship based on marriage to a Bahamian will not be eligible for the constitutional change if they are no longer married to a Bahamian, if they are married but have no intention of living with the Bahamian spouse, or if it can be shown that the foreign spouse only married the Bahamian to access Bahamian citizenship. In all these cases, Bahamian citizenship applications will be denied.
The third Bill seeks to remediate the one area of the Constitution that discriminates against men based on gender. Presently, an unmarried Bahamian father cannot pass his citizenship to a child born to a foreign woman. The Bill will give an unwed Bahamian father the same right to pass citizenship to his child that a Bahamian woman has always had under the Constitution in relation to a child born to her out of wedlock. However, proof of paternity by one of the methods prescribed by law is required.
The final Bill will end discrimination based on sex. This involves the insertion of the word “sex” in Article 26 of the Constitution to make it unconstitutional to discriminate based on whether someone is male or female.
It makes clear that the existing exceptions will continue to apply. In particular same-sex marriages will remain unlawful as prescribed under the Matrimonial Causes Act.