Earlier last week, the Puerto Rico Senate approved, following an intense (and at times, hopeful on one hand, and depressing on the other) debate on S.B. 238, a bill that would outlaw employment discrimination based on sexual orientation. The bill, spearheaded by one of the San Juan Senators, Ramón Luis Nieves, is similar to one that was passed by the Statehood Party dominated lower house in the last term but ultimately died in committee when it reached the Senate. The measure would amend several employment law provisions that deal with discrimination (be it for race, gender, religion, etc.) and would add sexual orientation as a prohibited factor upon which to make an employment decision. With a new party in power, the Commonwealth Party seeks to make good on its promise to the LGBTI (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Intersex) community.
S.B. 238’s Senate approval largely fell on party lines, with the Commonwealth Party Senators (the majority of the Senate) voting in favor, and most of the Statehood Party Senators voting against it. The religious right in Puerto Rico, one who amassed close to 200,000 followers in the “Puerto Rico Stands Up” march against LGBTI equality on February of this year, was in full force working against the measure, downplaying any instance of employment discrimination based on sexual orientation. Although the bill was approved, the religious right was able to get an amendment to the bill to exempt religious institutions from the bill’s provisions. Notwithstanding the amendment and facing defeat in the Senate, they vowed to double down in their efforts in the lower chamber of the legislature, where the Commonwealth Party retains the majority.
S.B. 283 is but one of many steps that the legislature and Governor Garcia Padilla need to make in order to make good on their promise to the LGBTI community. Also in the legislative pipeline is a bill to grant same-sex couples the protections of the Domestic Violence Act (Act 54, which currently applies to heterosexual couples). This bill has also met the resistance of the religious right, while finding ample support in the rest of the population. Same-sex couples that are victims of domestic violence are currently limited to the provisions for battery and assault found in the penal code. An amendment to the Domestic Violence Act would grant greater protection to those in the LGBTI community who suffer violence at the hands of their partner.
Finally, the government has yet to act on the issue of same-sex adoptions. Recently, the Puerto Rico Supreme Court ruled that the Puerto Rico Adoption Act is not unconstitutional in the manner that it does not allow same-sex couples to jointly adopt a child. The Court held that sexual orientation is not a suspect class and does not warrant sufficient protection as to strike down the prohibition found in the Adoption Act. The appealing party filed a motion to reconsider, which was swiftly rejected by the Court. Governor Garcia Padilla, as well as Senate Majority Leader, Eduardo Bhatia, have criticized the Court’s decision but have fallen short of pushing through a legislative solution.
The Commonwealth Party is keenly aware of how many votes the religious right can muster come 2016, particularly given Governor Garcia Padilla’s slim lead to win the governorship in 2012. By the same token, the Commonwealth Party strongly courted the LGBTI community running up to the elections. The Commonwealth Party is moving in the right direction on LGBTI rights, but with majorities in both houses, it could fast track the pending legislative proposals and finally put Puerto Rico (to some degree) up to par with many States in the U.S. and Latin American countries such as Uruguay, Argentina and now Brazil.