Guyana’s institutions have certainly not been secularized

Dear Editor,

I applaud the recent Stabroek News editorial titled ‘Decriminalisation of homosexuality’ published on June 17th, 2018. There were many important points that warrant further public conversation and debate.

The article reiterated that “Guyana is a secular state”, a proclamation used by many liberal advocates. I believe more needs to be said about Guyana’s secularism. There are important, fundamental questions to be asked. Questions such as: What makes Guyana secular? How secular is Guyana? Even if Guyana is a ‘secular’ state, have Guyana’s political institutions and traditions been secularized? Does Guyana practice secularism or at least advocate for it?

However, in order to address these questions, we must have an idea what it means to be ‘secular’, what the process of secularization refers to, and what the principle of secularism seeks to establish.

A secular state operates within the domain of politics and rule of law, while being neutral when it comes to religious affairs, treating all citizens equally regardless of religion or non-religion. Guyana is secular in this sense because our Constitution is constructed on the premise of ‘rule by the people over the people’s affairs’. Therefore, Guyana, as a state, is not bounded by nor is it obligated to adhere to any theological or religious doctrine.

Secularization, by contrast, is the process of differentiating between what is religious and what is secular, and modifying public institutions accordingly. Institutions become ‘secularized’ when religious elements deemed unnecessary and irrelevant for secular governance are either rejected or removed. Unfortunately, religious symbolism and ritual, particularly affiliated with Christianity, have been built into many public institutions by means of our colonial history but continue to be enforced by today’s public representatives. Guyana’s institutions have certainly not been secularized.

Finally, secularism is an ideological principle that enshrines the importance of separating religious authority and affairs from matters of public policy and state affairs. It creates a clear distinction between religion and governance. Secularism could also mean merely establishing just laws for society without favouring or privileging any religious viewpoint, particularly relevant in countries with diverse populations. The common reason given for not overturning Guyana’s anti-LGBT legislation is usually a kowtow to Guyana’s religious communities, thereby blurring the line between church and state.

Although the Constitution of Guyana does declare Guyana to be a secular state, we have no explicit principle of separation of church and state and, as a state, we do not practice or promote secularism or secularization.  Examples of secular principles which are enshrined in the Constitution of Guyana are ‘Freedom of Religion’ and ‘Freedom of Thought and Expression’. However, without something like a ‘separation of church and state’ clause, and greater courage from those in power, the issue of religious interference and infringement concerns, including how much relevance religious authorities should have over public matters, will continue to remain contentious.

Yours faithfully,

Ferlin F Pedro

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