Homosexuality: Adventist Leaders in Jamaica Attempt to Balance Human Rights Stand with Traditional View
Updated March 31, 2016: On Monday (March 28) the Jamaica Gleaner, one of the leading newspapers in the Caribbean island nation, published statements by national leaders of the Adventist denomination from a forum held by the editors last week regarding possible changes in the country’s laws and public attitudes which the United States Department of State has described officially as “widespread homophobia.”
“Senior clergymen of the Seventh-day Adventist Church have made it clear that any decision to repeal Jamaica’s buggery law will not be in alignment with the Bible and … warned policymakers to keep God at the center of their deliberation,” according to the newspaper. It also reported that one of the leaders said “he was not in support of anyone discriminating against homosexuals.”
“We are aware that Government has a responsibility to protect the rights of Christians and non-Christians,” the newspaper quoted Pastor Everett Brown, national head of the denomination as president of the Jamaica Union Conference. “But … we would not support any legislation that would make it acceptable for anyone to practice anything that is immoral.”
Sexual behavior involving two men, even in private, is against an 1861 law in Jamaica, dating from when it was a British colony, called the “buggery law.” Breaking this law could result in a prison term of up to ten years, although it has not been enforced in recent times, according to Wikipedia and other widely-recognized sources. “Jamaica’s laws do not criminalize the status of being LGBT [lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender] but instead outlaw conduct,” states Wikipedia.
There is also a law against “gross indecency,” a term not defined in the law which “has been interpreted as ‘referring to any kind of physical intimacy,’ including holding hands,” Wikipedia quotes legal documents. According to Human Rights Watch, an international organization that has collaborated with the Adventist denomination on religious liberty cases in other nations, “regardless of how often persons are convicted of buggery or gross indecency, the arrests themselves send a message. The Jamaican press publishes the names of men arrested for those crimes … putting them at risk of physical injury [and the law] has made LGBT persons vulnerable to extortion from neighbors who threaten to report them to the police as part of blackmailing schemes.”
The European Parliament in 2005 passed a resolution calling on Jamaica to repeal its “antiquated and discriminatory sodomy laws and to actively combat widespread homophobia.” Former prime minister Portia Simpson pledged that “no one should be discriminated against when her party lost the majority in parliament. Prime Minister Andrew Holness is an Adventist.
A case has been filed against Jamaica at the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights by Maurice Tomlinson because of death threats he received when the news media reported his marriage to another man in Canada, a Commonwealth country where same-sex marriage is legal. Although no date for a hearing has been set, there has been discussion in Jamaica of revising or repealing the “buggery law.”
“We are not supportive of removing the buggery law,” the Jamaica Gleaner quoted Dr. Merrick Walker, pastor of the Washington Gardens Seventh-day Adventist Church in Saint Andrew, one of the denomination’s representatives at the forum last week. “We believe that we should be very meticulous … looking at the repercussions that can result and pursue the continuation of the family as the Lord established it.”
Speaking as a representative of the Adventist denomination, Walker went on to say, “We are very tolerant of those who are different, but we disassociate ourselves from the difference if it is construed to be something immoral,” according to the newspaper. “We are guided by a Bible-based worldview. … We are aware of the need to cater to other forms of families that have been established, but our focus is to strive for the ideal family,” referring to marriage limited to one man and one woman as specified in the Adventist Fundamental Beliefs statement.
Another Adventist leader in the group stepped back from the legal issues. “As I understand it, our concern is not so much about what is legislated and what is nor or what is unacceptable in society,” said Pastor Dane Fletcher, youth director of the Jamaica Union Conference. “We promote biblical norms [and are] more concerned about individuals making an effort to please God in every area of their life,” the newspaper reported.
A year ago the denomination’s worldwide entity, the General Conference convened a council on sexuality in Cape Town, South Africa, to consider how Adventists should respond to the global culture shift that is increasingly supportive of LGBT relationships. The council called for compassionate implementation of the denomination’s teachings on the topic of human sexuality. Its official statement took a stand against intolerance, discrimination and hate crimes, as Adventist Today reported at the time.
Update on March 31
Sandrea Falconer, a cabinet minister in the previous Government, reacted to the statements of Adventist leaders published by the Jamaica Gleaner stating that even if one believes that homosexual behavior is a sin, it should not be criminalized under the law. She accused Brown and Walker of hypocrisy, stating “the Bible also teaches about forgiveness and your church leadership continues to wage a battle against your own Pastor Michael Harvey. Even though he has sought forgiveness … you continue to punish him and strip him of his livelihood and dignity,” reported The Star.
Harvey was senior pastor at the local church on the campus of Northern Caribbean University, an Adventist institution of higher education. As previously reported in Adventist Today, he was fired because he was a speaker at a meeting of the People’s National Party in January urging support for its candidates in the recent election.
If homosexual behavior is to remain a criminal act in Jamaica, “should we treat all other named sins in the Bible … as criminal acts?” Falconer asked. To some who responded to her comments on Facebook, she seemed to be referring to hypocrisy, although she specifically mentioned “adultery, fornication and lying, etc.,” according to the newspaper. In a different public statement last week, Adventist leaders in Jamaica promised to not cover up cases of sexual misconduct or child abuse by denominational employees.