Trinidad and Tobago Humanist Association

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No Equal Opportunities Act with Government Funding?

Published in Guardian, Newsday and Express
25 July 2008 • 380 words

Before Government Ministers assume office, they are constitutionally required to take an oath in which they promise to "conscientiously, impartially and to the best of my knowledge, judgment and ability discharge the functions of my office and do right to all manner of people after the laws and usages of Trinidad and Tobago without fear or favour, affection or ill-will."

But can any citizen now trust Minister Emily Gaynor Dick-Forde to uphold this oath after she stood up in Parliament and declared that she is a Christian who believes the only true moral path is that of Jesus Christ? Any non-Christian who has to deal with the departments of Planning, Housing or the Environment and gets unsatisfactory treatment might now legitimately wonder if Dr Gaynor Dick-Forde's religious bias is influencing her underlings. Even any Christian who gets favourable treatment, if they are truly moral, must wonder if rules are being bent for them.

Dr Gaynor Dick-Forde made her remark in response to Independent Senator Bashrat's Ali's assertion that the University of the Southern Caribbean is contravening the Equal Opportunities Act by listing "Christian values" as a criterion in its hiring policy. Dr Gaynor Dick-Forde claimed that the EOA might, possibly, be an attack on Christian fundamentals. In fact, the danger of the EOA is far more pernicious – it may facilitate attacks on freedom of expression.

In any case, the Minister completely misunderstood the Senator's point. The USC is free to impose any sort of criteria it wants IF IT DOES NOT HAVE GOVERNMENT FUNDING. But, since the Prime Minister in his 2007-2008 Budget promised to give the USC $97 million of taxpayers' money over the next four years, the institution must adhere to the values of a plural society, which means it should not use religious belief, or the lack of such belief, as criteria for either students or its faculty.

Clearly, Dr Gaynor Dick-Forde does not understand, or appreciate, the principle of separating religion and state. But, as a Government Minister, she had better understand the rights enshrined in our Constitution, 4(d) of which guarantees "the right of the individual to equality of treatment from any public authority in the exercise of any functions" and 4(h) which guarantees "freedom of conscience and religious belief and observance".

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