KINGSTOWN, St. Vincent – Prime Minister Dr. Ralph Gonsalves on Monday met with officials of the Christian Council on the heels of a Feb. 13 letter to the head of the multi-denominational body about the “growing threat of secularism”.
In the letter, Gonsalves, a lawyer, said that while no one in St. Vincent and the Grenadines (SVG) is forced to participate in prayers at public institutions and functions, he feared that “judicial challenges elsewhere may become copycat precedent” in SVG.
He told Parliament on Tuesday that the letter to Anglican bishop Leopold Friday, chair of the Christian Council, also speaks to reconciliation and Muslim-Christian dialogue. These are “three question not touching on bread and butter but are important to our way of life and which would touch on bread and butter at the second remove,” Gonsalves said.
In his letter, Gonsalves detailed how the Bideford Town Council in Britain had lost a legal battle to hold prayers at the start of meetings despite having voted twice in favour of the practice.
“This is a troubling decision given the fact that the Law Courts in the Eastern Caribbean look to the rulings of the High Court and Court of Appeal in England as ‘persuasive’, though not ‘conclusive’, precedents’,” Gonsalves said, adding that the decision in England follows several legal judgments “which points to a growing secularism in that country”.
He mentioned British Airways employee Nadia Eweida who was sent home for failing to conceal a small cross, and the defeat at the appellate level of request by Lillian Ladele, a Christian and Registrar in the London Borough of Islington, to be excused from officiating over a civil union.
The Islington Council also commenced disciplinary proceeding against Ladele’s and the law courts rejected her application for relief, ruling that marriage was not a core value of Christianity and that Ladele’s was being unreasonable.
Gonsalves also pointed to the United States, which, he said, was “profoundly influential in shaping our region’s values”. He said that the North American nation “has established a ‘wall’ between Church and States and has authoritatively endorsed a bundle of stances on socio-religious issues which are antithetical to Christianity and offensive to the tried and tested values of our Caribbean civilization”.
The preamble to the Constitution of St. Vincent and the Grenadines, Gonsalves noted, affirms that the nations is “founded on the belief in the supremacy of God and the freedom and dignity of man”.
“Over the years, a sensible balance has evolved between Church and State, between community religious beliefs and individual choice, and collective activities grounded in Christian ethos and individual group tolerance,” he said of the situation in SVG. He mentioned that meetings or Parliament and the Cabinet begin with prayer and public function routinely begin with prayers and the singing of the National Anthem while prayers are said at public school and nurses pray with patients.
“Those who are non-believers are not forced to participate in prayers; indeed, no one is. It is a voluntary activity. Rightly, we accept all this as proper. But I fear that judicial challenges elsewhere may become copycat precedents in St. Vincent and the Grenadines,” Gonsalves wrote. “The Churches must this be on guard and thus avoid complacency even as we celebrate our continued rights, privileges and good sense. In the process, our Churches ought not to marginalise the public expression of public faith or, more properly, the expression of faith publicly.”
Gonsalves, who publicly professes his Catholic faith, further said in this letter that he was pleased that there is growing awareness in the Christian Community of the “necessity and desirability” for Christian-Muslim dialogue, regionally and internationally, to deepen understand and bolster peace”.
He said that this ideologue “does not obviate the requirement for evangelism among ‘[Jews] and Gentiles] alike” and that he was encouraged by “the on-going efforts of the Churches to foster national reconciliation, unity, peace, and love between and among person of different political affiliation/persuasion”.
Friday and a delegation from the Christian Council met with Gonsalves on Monday to discuss the issues he had raised. Gonsalves, who in January offered to withdraw as a tangible act of reconciliation two high court judgments against two opposition lawmakers, told Parliament that “quite a bit of time” was spent discussing reconciliation.
Minister of National Reconciliation Maxwell Charles was at another meeting and did not attend the discussion with the Christian Council delegation. Gonsalves, however, told lawmakers that Charles has submitted to and Cabinet had approved a document on national reconciliation, which would be “shortly circulated to all the relevant entities in the country”.