London (CNSNews.com) - Britain's Labor government plans to scrap laws outlawing homosexuality in five overseas territories in the Caribbean, despite opposition from the largely conservative communities living there.
After failing in a number of attempts to persuade the islands' governments to abolish the laws themselves, the government in London now intends to do so by means of an "order in council" by the end of this year. Britain has the power unilaterally to revoke laws in its dependencies.
The territories concerned are the Cayman Islands, Anguilla, Monserrat, the British Virgin Islands, and the Turks and Caicos. They range in population from 11,000 in Anguilla to 38,000 in the Caymans, and many of the residents are devout Christians. The islanders come originally of mainly African descent.
Homosexual acts, even between consenting adults, are unlawful, and punishable by penalties ranging from fines to lengthy imprisonment. The laws are rarely invoked.
The government minister responsible for Britain's overseas territories, Patricia Scotland, has confirmed the government's intention in a letter to a liberal lawmaker.
"None of the relevant territories were willing to legislate themselves," Scotland said in the letter, published in a newspaper here. "We will therefore shortly be proceeding with an order in council to make the necessary change to the law of the five Caribbean territories. I expect to do this before Christmas."
Last month, human rights legislation went into effect in Britain bringing domestic law into line with the European Convention of Human Rights. The government has now to ensure that each of its laws complies with the EU document.
The islanders themselves are torn between anger at being dictated to from London, and resignation about their inability to do anything about it, according to local reports.
In a telephone interview Friday, the pastor of a large church in Grand Cayman - the largest of the three Cayman Islands - expressed the frustration he said was felt by his congregants and the community at large.
"The churches and the whole society have a very strong stand on that. They feel that the law should not be changed," said the Rev. Godfrey Meghoo.
He attributed the British move to pressure from the EU, rather than an overriding pro-homosexual agenda on the government's part.
Homosexuality in the community was not a major problem at the moment, he said, but there were fears if the law was changed, youngsters would face new temptations.
Meghoo said the church was concerned about "the effect it would have on young people and children, who are under pressure already because of the growing prosperity of these islands, and the emphasis of materialism.
"I think young people and children would grow up asking too many questions [about alternative lifestyles] and wanting to follow suit. We're afraid it would have a bad effect on family life, which is a serious thing when it comes to any country surviving."
Elections were held in the Caymans on November 8. Meghoo said politicians in both main camps had expressed support for retaining the law.
"We'd be very displeased and annoyed [if Britain scrapped it]. It's being discussed by the new government what sort of representations to make, and what type of action to take after that."
As far as community reaction goes, Meghoo said he "would not be surprised if people demonstrate openly" against the move.
He confirmed that Caymanian society was "conservative, from the religious point of view."
His Protestant church has nine congregations in a country of just 100 square miles - one-tenth of the size of Rhode Island. There are also a number of other denominations, both Protestant and Roman Catholic.
Meghoo recalled an incident last year in which a cruise ship carrying a party of 900 homosexuals was refused permission to dock in the Cayman Islands. A similar incident occurred in Jamaica, an independent former British colony which continues to outlaw homosexuality.
"We have too many cruise ships anyway," he said. "We can afford to be choosy."
Some government officials on the islands have been quoted as expressing astonishment at what they see as a high-handed willingness on Britain's part to trample on the wishes of the citizens, irrespective of their cultural and religious views.
But although the islands have local autonomy, independence from Britain is not widely viewed as a viable option.
An editorial in the weekly Cayman Net News this week noted that, because of EU human rights laws, the will of the people of the overseas territories must now "take second place to [Britain's] own agenda, one that is increasingly not its own, but that of the European Union."
The plan to scrap the law would be a "baptism of fire" for the new Cayman government, it said.
"It seems clear that if the newly-elected leaders oppose this move by the mother country, as many of their constituents do, they owe it to the people to vigorously and vehemently defend their position and use every proper and available means necessary to ensure that due regard is given to the people's right to self determination on matters such as these."
In an interview with the paper, Harris McCoy, a Caymanian financial expert and prominent member of the community, notes the British government itself has been unable to push through recent legislation to lower the age of consent for homosexuals, because of opposition in parliament.
"This indicates that the UK itself is divided on the issue. How then can you expect a small and conservative community, with limited resources to make quickly informed decisions, to suddenly become a trendsetter?"