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House mulls Rasta church bid

Published:Friday | February 26, 2010 | 12:00 AM

Philip Hamilton, Gleaner Writer

A Rastafarian church's 14-year bid for incorporation in Jamaica continues to be a major source of contention among the nation's lawmakers.

The Church of Haile Selassie I, which first submitted its petition for incorporation in October 1996, is yet to receive parliamentary approval despite pleas by the church and its legal representatives.

At issue is the church's use of certain herbs in its religious sacraments, which has been misinterpreted by some persons as promoting the use of ganja during worship.

During yesterday's joint select committee meeting on private bills reviewing amendments to the church's incorporation bill, Opposition Senator Mark Golding expressed dissatisfaction with sections of the legislation that sought to define the church's sacrament.

"I don't think its appropriate to attempt to define what their sacrament is in this legislation or to try and list what herbs are used in it and say that ganja isn't," Golding told Heather Kinlocke from the chief parliamentary counsel's office.

Golding, however, was quick to point out that the bill did not speak to the use of ganja, as use of marijuana by the church would constitute a criminal offence leading to prosecution.

Several misperceptions

Representatives of the church who met with the committee last December had been at pains to tell members there were several misperceptions as to what constituted a herb due to ignorance.

Church of Haile Selassie I spokesman Abuna Foxe told the committee the church used the herb cassias in its rituals and not marijuana as some believed.

He said much contention stemmed from the fact that the word herb had a generic meaning, which could be misconstrued to mean ganja.

Committee Chairman Senator Hyacinth Bennett, who was absent from December's meeting, told committee members there was a need to clarify the concept of the word 'herb' out of an abundance of caution as it appeared to be shrouded in semantics.

"Colloquially speaking, there is a perception and understanding of herb. That is what's been occupying my mind," said Bennett.

Senators Golding and Warren Newby assured Bennett that the church, during its presentation to the committee at its last meeting, gave assurances it did not use ganja in its sacraments.

Prior to December last year, the bill seeking incorporation status for the Church of Selassie I was last presented before the committee for approval in 2000.

If approved, it would provide the church legal rights to property ownership, as well as tax benefits.