Rastafarians wanted some respect for their religious beliefs – authorities responded

A victory for the Church of Haile SelassieThe Globe and Mail (Canada), Feb. 6, 2003
http://www.globeandmail.com/
ByDAVID PAULIN, Special to the Globe and Mail

KINGSTON — Their country is the birthplace of Rastafarianism, but Jamaicans who follow the colourful movement say they are treated as reggae-listening, pot-smoking misfits and deserve better treatment.

“They’ll give Bob Marley an honourary degree.

“But they wouldn’t want a Rastafarian to marry their daughter,” said Dilipi Champagnie, an affable Rastafarian priest who won the right yesterday, in a landmark legal case, to minister to prison inmates.

The case dealt with the religious rights of Mr. Champagnie, who serves at the Church of Haile Selassie in a gritty part of West Kingston, and Kevin Hall, a 26-year-old prison inmate serving a 15-year sentence for a gang-related murder.

Mr. Hall wanted to be baptized, but Mr. Champagnie was prohibited from using the prison chapel to conduct the ceremony. He told prison officials that no marijuana would be used in the ritual, but his request was denied.

Marijuana is illegal in Jamaica, but it’s widely used here, and Rastafarians use it in religious ceremonies.

Mr. Champagnie said it was an insult that although Christian ministers visited other prisoners freely, he had to speak to Mr. Hall from behind a glass partition.

Lord Anthony Gifford, a Kingston lawyer, was to argue before the Supreme Court yesterday that Jamaica’s Attorney-General and the Commissioner of Corrections had violated the religious rights of the church and Mr. Hall.

Shortly before the court was to consider the case, Jamaican authorities agreed to respect the religious rights of Rastafarian priests and prison inmates.

Lawyers for the plaintiffs said the settlement would pave the way for Rastafarians to petition Parliament to grant their churches tax-exempt status and to allow Rastafarians to use marijuana legally as part of their sacraments.

Rastafarian priests also want to perform weddings and other ceremonies, a right denied them in the conservative and predominantly Christian former British colony.

In a joint statement issued by the plaintiffs and defendants, the Attorney-General and Commissioner of Corrections agreed to recognize that “the Church of Haile Selassie has the right to minister to its adherents in the correctional system.”

The defendants denied that the rights of Mr. Hall and the church have “been breached in the past” but said they now were “happy to co-operate with the Church of Haile Selassie in the future to ensure that the rights of the church and its members are respected.”

Rastafarians have evolved since the early 1930s from a fringe subculture into a trend-setting movement. Their reggae music and dreadlocks have become cultural icons.

Today, Rastafarians and their imitators are everywhere on Jamaica, an island of 2.6 million people.

Yet many still complain of workplace discrimination, snubs, and the government’s refusal to grant them full religious rights.

“We have never heard the thanks, and we have never seen the appreciation,” prominent Rastafarian lawyer Miguel Lorne said.

David Brown, director of the African Caribbean Institute of Jamaica in Kingston, argued that discrimination has more to do with Rastafarians’ social class than their religious beliefs.

But Mr. Lorne said he suffers the same kind of police harassment routinely faced by younger, working-class Rastafarians.

“I get stopped just as much on the road as any other Rastafarians,” the lawyer said. “I feel just as persecuted.”

Now, the plaintiffs hope, that will change.

“It’s clear that they now recognize the rights of the church and the rights of Kevin Hall and other inmates to be baptized,” said Lord Gifford, who said at least 50 inmates in one prison want to be baptized Rastafarians.

“I would say that it’s a victory, you know,” Mr. Champagnie said. “I feel grateful.”

Rastafarians: A look at the origins and beliefs of the movement.

Origins: Rastafarianism dates back to the 1930s and the black ‘Back to Africa’ movement, its adherents worship Haile Selassie, the former emperor of Ethiopia, under his precoronation name: Ras Tafari. Believers consider the emperor a divine being and champion of the black race, and await redemption in the form of repatriation to Africa.

Beliefs: Devout Rastafarians have been known to reject Western medical treatment, contraception and legal marriage, while forbidding funerals, secondhand clothing and the eating of pork, among other taboos. But marijuana, also known as ‘the holy herb’ or ganja, took on the role of a religious sacrament as the movement gathered speed.

Favourite son: Reggae singer Bob Marley was the most famous Rastafarian before his death from cancer in 1981, at age 36. He initially refused treatment because of his beliefs, and left a popular legacy for the movement in his musical artistry.

SOURCES: ENCYCLOPEDIA BRITANNICA, WWW.BIOGRAPHY.COM

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