December 12, 2017 at 12:14 pm EST | by Michael K. Lavers
Puerto Rico Senate approves religious freedom bill

Puerto Rico Pulse nightclub victims, gay news, Washington Blade

The Puerto Rico Senate has approved a religious freedom bill that critics contend would allow anti-LGBT discrimination in the U.S. commonwealth. Activists and their supporters have urged Gov. Ricardo Rosselló to veto the measure. (Image by Nicolas Raymond; courtesy Flickr)

The Puerto Rico Senate on Sunday approved a religious freedom bill that critics contend would allow anti-LGBT discrimination in the U.S. commonwealth.

The bill — which is known as the Law for the Protection of Religious Liberty in Puerto Rico — notes the U.S. and Puerto Rican constitutions guarantee freedom of religion. The measure also states “it is important to remember the situations of confrontations that the religious sector experienced in the past administration where the public education sector tried to impose an ideology contrary to parents’ Christian principles.”

The bill specifically refers to obligatory “teaching of gender ideology in all private education” through the Puerto Rico Department of the Family’s campaign against child abuse that then-Gov. Alejandro García Padilla’s administration launched in 2014.

García was in office from 2013 until January of this year.

His administration in 2015 announced it would no longer defend Puerto Rico’s same-sex marriage ban. Same-sex couples have been able to legally marry in Puerto Rico since shortly after the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark ruling in the Obergefell case that extended marriage rights to same-sex couples throughout the country.

Laws that banned anti-LGBT discrimination in Puerto Rico and added sexual orientation and gender identity to the U.S. commonwealth’s domestic violence statutes took effect in 2013. García in 2015 issued executive orders that prohibit hospitals from discriminating against patients based on their gender identity when they seek treatment in an emergency room and allows trans Puerto Ricans to change the gender on their driver’s license.

“It must be made absolutely clear that this statute cannot be interpreted with the purpose of discrimination in the way the state provides services,” reads the bill. “The state has the obligation to always provide public services to all citizens, without discriminating based on race, religion, sex or sexual orientation and gender identity.”

The Puerto Rico House of Representatives in May approved the bill. LGBT rights advocates and their supporters quickly criticized the senators who supported the measure.

“Your religious liberty cannot impede my rights,” tweeted Pedro Julio Serrano, founder of Puerto Rico Para Tod@s, a Puerto Rican LGBT advocacy group, on Monday.

San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz and New York City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, who was born in San Juan, also criticized the bill.

“They are the epitome of evil,” tweeted Mark-Viverito, specifically referring to the senators who voted for the measure. “Shame on them.”

It remains unclear whether Gov. Ricardo Rosselló, who took office in January, will sign the bill. Serrano is among those who have urged him to veto it.

“Discrimination — whatever it may be — disguises hatred, fear and ignorance,” tweeted Yulín on Monday. “There will never be a justification to hide it behind any law.”

Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico in September

The Senate approved the religious freedom bill less than three months after Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico.

Puerto Rican advocates with whom the Blade has spoken have said LGBT people and those with HIV/AIDS in the U.S. commonwealth are even more vulnerable after Maria because of the lack of power and access to medicine and other basic needs and services.

Wilfred Labiosa, co-founder of WAVES AHEAD, an organization that works with at-risk groups in Puerto Rico, told the Blade in October during a telephone interview from San Juan that a trans woman was not given access to a cell phone to call her relatives when other people at the shelter in which she was living received one.

Yulín’s government is working with AIDS Healthcare Foundation to provide generators to people with HIV/AIDS in her city. The D.C.-based Food and Friends since Maria has raised more than $30,000 for Bill’s Kitchen, a San Juan-based organization that provides meals to people with HIV/AIDS in Puerto Rico.

Maria did not damage Puerto Rico’s first LGBT-specific monument, which is located in San Juan’s oceanfront Third Millennium Park. It contains the names of the 49 people who died inside the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Fla., on June 12, 2016.

Nearly half of the victims were LGBT Puerto Ricans.

Yulín formally unveiled the monument during a ceremony that took place two weeks after the Pulse nightclub massacre. She told the Blade last month during an interview at the U.S. Capitol Visitors Center that San Juan is “an LGBTTQI-sensitive community.”

“We are not going to marginalize anybody,” she added.

San Juan, Puerto Rico, monument, gay news, Washington Blade

Puerto Rico’s first LGBT-specific monument is located in Third Millennium Park in the U.S. commonwealth’s capital of San Juan. The city’s mayor, Carmen Yulín Cruz, told the Washington Blade last month that it did not suffer any damage during Hurricane Maria. She also highlighted her government continues to support the city’s LGBT community. (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)

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

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