March 26, 2014 at 5:19 pm EDT | by Michael K. Lavers
Lesbian couple files marriage lawsuit in Puerto Rico

Ivonne Álvarez Velez, Pedro Julio Serrano, Puerto Rico Para Tod@s, Ada Conde Vidal, gay news, Washington Blade

Ivonne Álvarez Velez, left, with Pedro Julio Serrano of Puerto Rico Para Tod@s and Ada Conde Vidal. (Photo courtesy of Pedro Julio Serrano)

A lesbian couple on Tuesday filed a federal lawsuit that seeks recognition of their Massachusetts marriage in Puerto Rico.

“We wish to enjoy the same social privileges and contractual rights that are conferred by the commonwealth on individuals in opposite-sex marriages and not to be treated as we are being treated as second class citizens differentiated, alienated and discriminated in comparison to other U.S. citizens,” say Ada Conde Vidal and Ivonne Álvarez Velez in their lawsuit they filed in U.S. District Court of Puerto Rico in San Juan. “Puerto Rico law precluding recognition of lawful same-sex marriages denies us those rights in violation of the Equal Protection and Due Process Clauses of the 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.”

Conde and Álvarez, who have been together for nearly 14 years, exchanged vows in Massachusetts in 2004 shortly after the state’s same-sex marriage law took effect.

Puerto Rican lawmakers in 1999 amended the U.S. commonwealth’s civil code to ban recognition of same-sex marriages – even those legally performed in other jurisdictions. Unions in which one person is transgender are also not recognized.

Conde, who is a lawyer, says in the lawsuit that Álvarez could not make medical decisions on behalf of her daughter who had open heart surgery because Puerto Rican officials do not recognize their relationship. The couple is also unable to file their income taxes in the U.S. commonwealth as a married couple.

“If she dies, I want my marriage legally recognized,” Conde told the Washington Blade on Wednesday. “If I am not recognized, I will not have any rights to request her estate.”

The lawsuit names Puerto Rico Health Secretary Ana Rius Armendariz and Wanda Llovet Díaz, director of the Puerto Rico Demographic Registry, as defendants.

“The commonwealth of Puerto Rico statutory provision has created a legal system in which civil marriage is restricted solely and exclusively to opposite-sex couples, and in which gay and lesbian individuals are denied the right to enter into a civil marriage,” say Conde and Álvarez. “The commonwealth of Puerto Rico statutory provision also deprives same-sex couples of federal marital privileges and benefits that, upon information and belief are available to same-sex couples who marry under state laws authorizing such benefits but that are not available to plaintiffs and other same-sex couples in Puerto Rico.”

18 states and D.C. have extended marriage rights to same-sex couples.

The 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver next month is scheduled to hold oral arguments in two cases challenging the constitutionality of state constitutional amendments that ban same-sex marriage in Oklahoma and Utah. The 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond, Va., in May is slated to hear a case that challenges Virginia’s gay nuptials ban.

The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco in the coming months is expected to hear oral arguments in a challenge to Nevada’s same-sex marriage ban. A federal appeals court in New Orleans will likely hear a similar case that challenges Texas’ gay nuptials prohibition after U.S. District Judge Orlando L. Garcia last month ruled the state’s same-sex marriage ban is unconstitutional.

The 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals on Tuesday placed a hold on same-sex marriages in Michigan pending an appeal of a lower court ruling that struck down the state’s gay nuptials ban.

A federal judge late last month ordered Kentucky to recognize marriages legally performed outside the state. Gays and lesbians in Florida, Alabama, Arizona, West Virginia and other states have also filed lawsuits seeking the right to marry since the U.S. Supreme Court last June struck down a portion of the Defense of Marriage Act.

The federal government recognizes legally married same-sex couples for tax and other purposes.

U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder last month announced the Justice Department will now recognize same-sex marriages in civil and criminal cases and extend full benefits to gay spouses of police officers and other public safety personnel – even in states that have yet to allow nuptials for gays and lesbians. He said a few weeks later that state attorneys general do not have to defend same-sex marriage bans.

Kentucky Attorney General Jack Conway, Nevada Attorney General Catherine Cortez Masto and Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring are among those who have declined to defend same-sex marriage bans in their respective states.

Pedro Julio Serrano of Puerto Rico Para Tod@s, a Puerto Rican LGBT advocacy group, noted to the Blade that Gov. Alejandro García Padilla last June applauded the U.S. Supreme Court’s DOMA ruling that applies to the American commonwealth. Serrano added he hopes Puerto Rico Justice Secretary César Miranda will not defend the island’s same-sex marriage ban in court.

“It is incumbent upon them to do the right thing if they truly believe in LGBT equality,” Serrano told the Blade, noting García has signed four pro-LGBT measures into law since taking office in January 2013. “It’s incumbent upon them not to defend this law because it’s unjust.”

Multiple attempts to reach the Puerto Rico Justice Department for comment on Conde and Álvarez’s lawsuit on Wednesday were unsuccessful.

“I’m a U.S. citizen,” Conde told the Blade. “I have the same rights in the Constitution no matter where I am – in a territory, a commonwealth or a state. I’m claiming my full citizenship and equality as any other citizen in the United States of America.”

Michael K. Lavers is the international news editor of the Washington Blade. Follow Michael

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