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The governor of Puerto Rico nixed a “religious freedom” bill advocates claim would have permitted sweeping discrimination against the LGBTQ community.

Gov. Ricardo Rosselló quietly vetoed House Bill 1018 last week, a controversial measure which would have allowed people of faith to deny services to queer and trans people in the name of religion. After refusing to sign the bill into law, Roselló said it would violate the “rights of sectors of our society and even limit public service to our population.”

“We promised a government that serves every citizen of this Earth and that is what we will do,” the governor said.

Rosselló had vowed not to approve HB 1018 after it passed both the House of Representatives and the Senate in December, and an earlier version was sent back to a legislative committee to be redrafted following his condemnation. Conservatives have continually claimed Rosselló promised to pass such a bill during his gubernatorial campaign, which he denies.

Those in favor of the legislation say its intention isn’t to “take away anyone’s rights.”

Senate President Thomas Rivera Schatz claimed of the revised bill that “nothing in this law may be used for the State to deny or stop providing any service to any person who requests, requires or needs it.” The amended version passed the upper house of the legislature in January with a 16 to 11 vote.

LGBTQ advocates in Puerto Rico contest the notion that HB 1018 is harmless.

University of Puerto Rico professor Carlos Rodriguez-Diaz tells INTO in a phone conversation that the passage of a “religious freedom” bill would have had “serious implications” for the embattled island nation. He claims it would institutionalize prejudice by providing a legal framework safeguarding anti-LGBTQ bias.

“It gives permission for individuals and organizations to discriminate against the community but with the protection of law,” says Rodriguez-Diaz, who is also an LGBTQ advocate. “It allows for people to feel empowered to discriminate.”

The lecturer argues the “religious freedom” bill isn’t necessary in a country where people of faith are already protected under the Constitution.

“I believe we don’t need to have laws which protect rights that are already given,” Rodriguez-Diaz claims. “Laws create better conditions for everybody and improve the lives of people who are the most vulnerable. Religious groups are not socially vulnerable in Puerto Rico—or in most places. They’re protected. They don’t pay taxes.”

Raymond Rohena Perez, co-founder of the Puerto Rico Trans Youth Coalition (PRTYC), claims the legislation threatened to set queer and trans people back “decades.”

“The majority of the LGBTQ community lives in poverty, especially in the transgender community,” he tells INTO in a phone conversation. “Trans people have little to no access to the workplace. They’re being discriminated against based on their gender expression. We’re in this constant negotiation in order to survive.”

But the U.S. territory had seen significant advances in LGBTQ rights in recent years.

Following the Supreme Court’s 2015 decision legalizing marriage equality, Puerto Rico's Department of Family ordered adoption and foster care agencies to solely weigh the "best interests of the child without prejudice" when placing a child. The island celebrated its first successful same-sex adoption in December 2015.

Although transgender people don’t have the ability to change their birth certificate under current law, activists challenged the policy in federal court.

Daniela Arroyo Gonzalez, co-founder of PRTYC, filed a lawsuit last year in order to be permitted to update her birth documents to accurately reflect her gender expression. The court filings refer to the affirmation of a transgender person’s lived identity is “essential to basic social and economic functioning in our society.” That suit is still pending.

Gonzalez tells INTO that if HB 1018 had passed, it would have been a “major obstacle” to winning her case.

“Hopefully, if we win the lawsuit, it would be a possibility for transgender citizens to be legal and to be valid,” she claims in a phone conversation. “Now that the LGBTQ community has more rights and more freedoms, people who are conservative want to have the freedom to discriminate.”

But the island’s LGBTQ community is far from out of the woods.

The legislature could override Rosselló’s veto with a two-thirds vote by lawmakers, which isn’t a far-fetched prospect. Although the centrist Popular Democratic Party controls both houses of the legislature, Perez claims “a great deal of political and economic power” is concentrated in the religious fundamentalist sector.

He adds that the Kim Davis case has emboldened extremists like Pastor Wanda Rolón, who once boycotted a Ricky Martin concert over fears it would “drag us all to hell.” Rolón also claimed marriage equality would expose Puerto Rico to “godless condemnation.”

“People of political influence have tried to use that discourse to move their own agendas,” Perez says of the Kentucky clerk jailed for refusing wedding licenses to same-sex couples.

The ongoing battle over LGBTQ rights is insult to injury following the devastating events which have rocked Puerto Rico in the past year. Although estimates claim 64 people died as a result of Hurricane Maria, reports suggest the actual body count could be closer to 1,000. The natural disaster could cost the island nearly $100 billion in damages.

Nearly four months after the hurricane first touched down on its shores, nearly 30 percent of the population still lacks electricity.

“We don’t need a bill like this,” Rodriguez-Diaz says. “We have more pressing issues to pay attention to. People are dying and we’re discussing this? We should be keeping people healthy and alive.”

Because the local LGBTQ community was already marginalized, it has only exacerbated the widespread poverty they face. Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) cut off aid to Puerto Rico in January, but before that time, trans people struggled to access the resources allotted to them because their names and official documentation are likely to be inconsistent.

LGBTQ people will continue to face obstacles from every direction.

“A great portion of our community has fled to the United States because of the limited resources they had,” Perez says. “They lost their jobs, they lost their clothing, they lost their homes. The few groups that have stayed on the island have taken part in the progress we’ve made with funds we’ve gotten from the states.”

“We just need the exposure so that people know what’s happening here—so that this doesn’t become a theocracy,” he continues. “It’s a democracy. Everyone should have the right to express and live in an authentic way.”

Photo by David Gasser/LatinContent/Getty Images


Nico Lang
Nico Lang is a staff writer for INTO, covering news, politics, and global LGBTQ issues.