“… you, Mr. Eustace, are not and will not be allowed to play God to me.” — Baptiste
KINGSTOWN, St. Vincent – Former senator Anesia Baptiste’s expressed refusal to observe an opposition New Democratic Party (NDP) policy on not making “statements which are averse to any religion” might have led to her dismissal from the senate last Thursday.
Opposition Leader Arnhim Eustace informed Baptiste of her dismissal when he announced on radio Friday that he had instructed Governor General Sir Frederick Ballantyne to revoke her senatorial appointment, six months after he defended it.
Well-placed sources told I-Witness News Sunday night that Eustace will address the issue on radio at 11 a.m. Monday, offering an explanation of his dismissal of the senator, who told I-Witness News on Friday that she “would say” that she does not know why she was fired.
But an 11-page, 5,000-word letter Baptiste wrote to her former boss — who is also president of the NDP — suggests that an NDP administration under his leadership would impinge on citizens’ constitutional liberties and adopt strong-arm practices against public servants.
In the letter, which was copied to 15 members of the NDP’s Strategy Committee including six NDP parliamentarians, Baptiste said she only last Tuesday learnt of the party’s policy on statements about religion.
She described the policy as “unconstitutional” and said it “contravenes every truth” of the nation’s Constitution about “religious liberty, freedom of speech and expression” and “the principles and objects” of the NDP itself.
“I do not at all agree with the policy position … I do not at all support the policy position … I will not follow or obey it because it is against my conscience which God alone can dictate to. And you, Mr. Eustace, are not and will not be allowed to play God to me,” Baptiste said in her letter.
She further said she will not follow the policy because it is “against my God-given religious-liberty right exercised in my freedom of opinion and speech. I will not follow or obey it because it is an attempt to limit my free … speech”.
Baptiste’s letter suggests that the rift began at a meeting of high-level party members on Tuesday, April 15, that discussed statements on radio by NDP member Shefflorn Ballantyne, who, along with Baptiste, are members of the Thusian Institute for Religious Liberty Inc.
Ballantyne told I-Witness News on Sunday that “after being contacted indirectly by the [NDP’s] General Secretary over a year ago,” he “expressed interest” in being the party’s candidate for North Windward in the next general election — constitutionally due in 2015.
“He was approached by constituents … asking me if I will be interested in being a possible candidate for North Windward and I subsequently expressed interest in writing. The party, through its General Secretary, facilitated my introduction and the introduction of two other interested persons to the people at an important meeting in Owia,” Ballantyne said.
If Ballantyne’s candidacy is confirmed and Baptiste remains the NDP’s candidate for West St. George, it will bring to two the number of Thusians on NDP tickets for the next election.
Ballantyne’s comments displeased Eustace
According to Baptiste’s letter, Eustace told the meeting Tuesday that he was unhappy with statements Ballantyne made on a radio station about the Catholic Church. Eustace, she said, “proceeded to indicate that it is the policy of the New Democratic Party that no candidate or potential candidate of the party should make any public statements which are averse to any religion”.
Ballantyne’s comments were in response to newspaper report of Prime Minister Dr. Ralph Gonsalves’ response earlier this month to a reporter’s questions about a religious “cult” here.
Another high-ranking member of the NDP, according to Baptiste, misrepresented Ballantyne’s comments and she indicated that the meeting was unable to hear a recording of Ballantyne’s actual statements because of difficulties with a computer.
Baptiste summarised Ballantyne’s comments, saying he “lamented a level of hypocrisy in society in the way the new religious group … was being branded as a cult, although its alleged religious teachings proved similar to those of the established Roman Catholic Church”.
Baptiste said that Ballantyne did not call the new religious entity nor the Catholic Church a cult but exposed Gonsalves’ “hypocrisy by inference to his weighing in on the topic, and indicating that to be fair, the PM should also call for criticism of the Roman Catholic Church’s teaching about the Pope’s divinity and should condemn it for that teaching…”
She said that Eustace had taken a position against Ballantyne’s statement although he said he had not heard it himself. “I am left to conclude that false perception, and indeed propaganda, rule and dictate our party policy in this matter and not truth based on facts accordingly.”
Baptiste said she was “shocked” to hear of the NDP’s policy and that she “considered the negative implications for religious liberty of candidates and potential candidates”, including herself.
She said the policy would disqualify her from being a candidate for the NDP although she was unanimously selected by the West St. George Constituency Council’s Executive and members to be the NDP’s candidate in that constituency in the next general election.
Eustace, a former prime minister, does not seem to appreciate the implication of the policy he had articulated “as president of the party, waiting to take governance,” Baptiste further stated.
Based on Eustace’s statements, he seemed to “think it is safe to purport that people are free to believe what they wish but public statements that are averse to religion are forbidden,” according to Baptiste.
Eustace’s policy, according to Baptiste, is “wrong on many fronts” and she quoted the Constitution, the NDP constitution, and the Bible in making her case against the policy.
“To dictate that candidates and potential candidates must not make public statements which are averse to any religion is in fact to limit their freedom of speech in the exercise of their religious liberty.
“Since we speak our thoughts, opinions and beliefs, the policy position is also in effect an effort to limit and dictate to the freedom of thoughts, opinions and beliefs of candidates and potential candidates.
“Moreover, since thoughts, opinions and beliefs are based on conscience, the policy seeks to dictate to the conscience — a thing only the CREATOR GOD has jurisdiction over and authority to do. Not only does this policy fail to show a guarantee of maximum expression of democratic liberties by all citizens, it is also unconstitutional in characteristic,” Baptiste wrote in her letter.
Policy on religion would ‘hurt’ NDP
She further argued that a statement that is averse to a religion “will always be subjective” and any action taken based on the NDP policy “would result in [Eustace] taking sides with religious doctrine.
“That will hurt the party, not help it. It would make the party’s policy position based on the protection of religious doctrine. This makes no sense because your duty as a political leader is to protect people’s rights from infringement, not to protect religious teachings from being criticized publicly (one cannot protect a doctrine anyway).
“Besides, who will you protect the most? Catholics, Seventh-Day Adventists? Rastafarians? Who? You will run the risk of offending one or more by standing for one or the other. This will hurt you,” Baptiste wrote.
She said that political policy “is supposed to protect the rights and freedoms of all to hold and manifest and propagate their religion according to the dictates of their consciences.
“To stand for the rights of all is helpful to the party. On the contrary, to give in to pressure from special interest groups over offense taken at public expression of religious opinion is unwise, immature and shows poor leadership. This will truly hurt the party.”
An opposition party “is best positioned to understand the need to protect the rights and freedoms of those in minority groups from the bullying and stifling attempts of those who consider themselves majority and popular,” Baptiste said.
“Therefore, it should be careful not to limit freedoms of minorities but to facilitate their free and full exercise legitimately, least it appear to take on the same character that its opponents — the government –possesses. For that, will truly hurt this opposition party.
‘backward and debilitating’ position
“… Please let it not be that you my dear sir and others in the upper party are the ones making this a political issue in the country, and not the government. It would be wise for you not to attack or to break those who are helping you fight the government like Ballantyne’s words were doing.”
Baptiste asked about critical comments by members of the NDP, including candidates and representatives, “against the hypocrisy of the Christian Council” and the party’s “condemnation of compromising positions” of some religious leaders.
“Will such commentary be outlawed now by this policy of yours, sir? I am sure there would have been religious persons who were offended at the party’s criticisms. Where was the policy against such then?” she said, as he asked why Ballantyne was “singled out now for being intelligently critical of an issue of comparative religious teachings”.
“The way this matter is being handled makes absolutely no sense whatsoever. It reeks of discrimination based on a level of bias against Ballantyne,” Baptiste further said and asked if the NDP leadership preferred another candidate for North Windward.
“Your policy promised taking action if necessary. What kind of action will you dare take, sir, against a man’s God-given and constitutionally guaranteed religious liberty? Will you act against his desires to serve at a higher level just because you don’t like his expressed opinion on religious matters?” Baptiste further said.
She said the position adopted by Eustace “is a backward and debilitating one for the NDP and I am obliged in my conscience to tell you so without water in my mouth”.
Baptiste said that the NDP meeting on Tuesday did not respond to her concern that “matters of complaint about candidates’ public behaviour” are not being discussed by the party.