April 26, 2019 at 12:17 am EDT | by Michael K. Lavers
Puerto Rico activists criticize religious freedom, conversion therapy bills
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Activists in Puerto Rico say two bills backed by Gov. Ricardo Rosselló that were introduced this week would open the door to discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. (Image by Nicolas Raymond; courtesy Flickr)

Activists in Puerto Rico have sharply criticized two bills they say will allow anti-LGBT discrimination.

Governor Ricardo Rosselló on Tuesday at a press conference that took place at his official residence in San Juan announced the introduction of Senate Bill 1253, which would “clarify certain religious freedom principles” in Puerto Rico, and Senate Bill 1254, which would ban so-called conversion therapy in the U.S. commonwealth. Johanne Vélez García, president of the governor’s Advisory Council on LGBTT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transsexual and transgender) Issues and LGBTT Community Center of Puerto Rico Executive Director Cecilia La Luz, who is also a member of the council, were among those who stood alongside Rosselló as he discussed the measures.

“We are introducing consensus bills, together with religious leaders and those from the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transsexual and transgender (LGBTT) community, to establish religious freedom guidelines and prohibit conversion therapy in law,” said Rosselló. “This represents an important victory for both communities.”

Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rosselló, center, talks about bills that would ban so-called conversion therapy and protect religious freedom in the U.S. commonwealth during a press conference at his official residence in San Juan, Puerto Rico, on April 23, 2019. The religious freedom bill in particular has sparked widespread concern among Puerto Rican LGBTI rights advocates. (Photo courtesy of Adlyn Torres/Office of Gov. Ricardo Rosselló)

Tuesday’s press conference took place less than three months after Rosselló’s administration issued guidelines that are designed to make Puerto Rico’s public employees more sensitive to the needs of trans people and same-sex couples and their children.

Rosselló on March 27 signed an executive order that bans conversion therapy for minors in Puerto Rico. Members of the pro-statehood New Progressive Party that Rosselló chairs on March 18 blocked a vote in the Puerto Rico House of Representatives on a bill that would have prohibited the practice on the island.

SB 1253, among other things, states public policy in Puerto Rico will be “the protection of our citizens’ right to practice the religion of their choice” and ensure religious-based organizations will “not be discriminated against because of their religious affiliations in (access to) government services, the procurement of permits, access to funds, materials, proposals and loans and other programs that are available to other non-religious entities.”

“Religious freedom is a fundamental right of vital importance for the development of a society worthy of man,” it reads. “It not only includes the profession of a religious creed, but also the power to act in accordance with those values and principles, having both the interests of the state and the protection of the common good in mind.”

SB 1254 contains a provision that exempts “churches and their institutions, members of the clergy and their religious advisors who are acting strictly within their pastoral or religious capacity in the exercise of their fundamental right to religious freedom” and “parents who are exercising their fundamental right to parental authority over their children.”

David Román of Puerto Rico Para Tod@s, a Puerto Rican LGBTI advocacy group, in a press release described SB 1253 as “the legalization of discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity.” Wilfred Labiosa, executive director of Waves Ahead and SAGE Puerto Rico, in a statement to the Washington Blade said SB 1253 and SB 1254 are not necessary.

“There is already freedom of speech and practice of religions,” said Labiosa.

“Second, the governor already signed an executive order banning conversion therapy some weeks ago,” he added. “Third, the governor is only banning (with this new bill) the use of conversion therapy among licensed mental health professionals and doctors and those billing public health insurances. This means that it can still be used by these religious and conservative practitioners getting paid in cash by parents wanting to change and convert their child.”

San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz, who is running for governor, is among those who have also criticized the two bills.

Religious freedom bill not ‘door to discrimination’

Vélez on Thursday noted to the Blade during a telephone interview the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993 is “the law of the land” in Puerto Rico. She nevertheless acknowledged concerns over SB 1253.

“They are legitimate,” said Vélez. “Anytime you draft a bill with this topic of religious freedom, our community can be harmed. It was a concern that we addressed.”

Puerto Rico’s nondiscrimination and hate crimes laws include both sexual orientation and gender identity. Anti-LGBT discrimination and violence nevertheless remains commonplace in the U.S. commonwealth despite these statutes.

Labiosa and other activists have told the Blade that LGBTI Puerto Ricans are even more vulnerable to discrimination, violence and poverty after Hurricane Maria devastated the island in 2017.

“This new statute cannot be interpreted with the purpose of discriminating in the provision of services on the part of the state,” reads SB 1253. “The state has the obligation to always provide public services to all of its citizens without discrimination on the basis of race, religion, sex or sexual orientation and gender identity.”

Wilfred Labiosa, executive director of Waves Ahead and SAGE Puerto Rico, left, walks through a neighborhood in Vieques, Puerto Rico, on Jan. 31, 2018. Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico on Sept. 20, 2017. Labiosa and other advocates maintain Maria has left LGBT Puerto Ricans even more vulnerable to discrimination and violence. (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)

Vélez told the Blade that SB 1253 is “no way a door to discrimination.” She described SB 1254 as “an absolute prohibition of conversion therapy for everybody,” even though she acknowledged the concerns raised over the religious exemption.

“Conversion therapy will be banned if that bill is approved,” said Vélez.

It remains unclear when lawmakers will debate the two bills.

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

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