Support Village Voice News With a Donation of Your Choice.
Guyana is a secular state and the Constitution implores the Government to practice secularism. This means that the government may neither advance a state religion nor policies that prefer one religion to the others. It also means that the government may not advance laws or policies that support religion over irreligion. The reason for secularism is obviously rooted in the need to preserve and protect religious and irreligious diversity. In the context of our former slave societies, the rationale is even more profound because of the recognised role that the state played in the promotion of religious conversion and the justification that it provided for the massacre and genocide of Indigenous peoples firstly, and the subsequent system of slavery that developed out of the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade.
The way that the prescriptions of secularism operate to protect the religious and non-religious is all the same. It proscribes the government from making laws or policies which actually support or inhibit, or, appear to support or inhibit, religion. This is so in order to prevent the government and its agents from subjecting people to purely religious values whether or not they consent. As a result, it imposes a positive obligation on the government to be neutral in circumstances such as a discourse on whether the public workforce is better or worse off because people lack religious virtue. However, because of the government’s support and promotion of this, “National day of Fasting and Praying” and religion more generally, it appears as though the government’s stance is anything but neutral. If anything, it seems as though the government has thereby given its fiat to the primacy of religious values in the state. The inescapable conclusion that flows from this is that the pious public servant is now given the impression that there is legitimate scope for the operationalisation of those religious values that were just embraced.
In Guyana, where religious intolerance is still a major hurdle in so many ways to the full and substantive realisation of the right to equality, this is deeply problematic. To realise this, one needs only to delve into the realms of pervasive social values, attitudes, and prejudices that are heavily influenced by a religious authority and unconstitutional when put into action. The sheer scope of the problem would quickly reveal why today’s occurrence was not simply a matter of harmless religious promotion. At the very least, it has served to potentially obfuscate the government’s position on the realisation of various minority rights that are at the mercy of majoritarian tyranny. Still, further, it has undoubtedly retrenched hard-won grounds gained in changing harmful social values for which many social justice groups have fought tirelessly.
Today alone, I can think about a million ways and circumstances in which marginalised people will be at the losing end of the stick: About the transgender woman who may not get past the overly zealous Muslim officer at the gate, under the pretext that she violates the dress code for public buildings; About the abused husband who seeks the intervention of a devout Catholic constable on duty, who does not believe in divorce; About the non-confirming adolescent whose pious Hindu public school teacher believes it is his duty to proselytise in order to bring about conformity with traditional Hindu gender and family roles; About the Spiritualists and Faithists of Comfa assembled at the Seven Ponds to venerate the spirit of Odo, whom the overly zealous Muslim officer and devout Catholic constable perceive to be an illegal assembly on a National Day of Fasting and Praying!
Otis Paul Junior Chase