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Legislature shelves bill that would bar discrimination

Friday, July 25, 2003 Posted: 1751 GMT ( 1:51 AM HKT)

GEORGETOWN, Guyana (AP) -- Following a lengthy debate, Guyana's parliament shelved a constitutional amendment that would outlaw discrimination against gays and lesbians.

With Guyana's socially conservative society in heated debate over the issue, the government sent the measure to a constitutional review committee for further discussion.

The measure, which required two-thirds approval in the 65-seat Parliament, would outlaw discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.

Proponents had argued the bill simply recognizes a fundamental human right, while critics said the bill would lead to a loosening of morals and sanctioning of homosexuality.

Parliament speaker Ralph Ramkarran said it made little sense to hold the vote, since both the governing and opposition parties have said their legislators would likely block the measure.

After a four-hour debate Thursday, legislators decided to send the bill back to the review commission, which can hear public testimony. It was unclear when it would be presented again to parliament.

The Guyana Human Rights Association, which backed the measure, had urged for a postponement, saying more time was needed for emotions to cool and that the fierce public debate had exposed homosexuals to unwanted criticism and ridicule.

During Thursday's debate, about 200 Christians protested in the afternoon heat singing hymns outside the National Assembly.

Others filled most seats in the public gallery, prompting the speaker to congratulate them for making their opposition known.

Among religious groups only the Roman Catholic Church has voiced support for the bill, while other Christian, Muslim, Hindu and Bahai groups all have warned it would be a first step toward legalizing same-sex marriages and child adoption by gay or lesbian couples.

Two years ago, legislators passed the bill unanimously. But it was vetoed by President Bharrat Jagdeo, who said he was bowing to pressure from religious groups.

The legislators later said they passed the bill, which was part of a wider measure to establish human rights, because they did not notice the references to sexual orientation in its wording.

Supporting calls to postpone the vote, the Anglican Church also said the issue had caused "new fault lines" to appear in a society already divided racially and politically.

The population of about 700,000 is almost evenly split between blacks, who support the opposition, and those of East Indian descent, who mainly back the governing party.

Sixty percent are Christians, while Hindus make the second largest religious group with about 30 percent.

©Copyright 2003, CNN International

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