SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico — Puerto Rico’s Justice Department announced Friday that it will not defend the U.S. territory’s laws banning same-sex marriage, a major turnaround for the socially conservative island that surprised many.
Justice Secretary Cesar Miranda said that the government can no longer continue to discriminate against the gay community.
“It’s neither fair nor correct to defend the constitutionality of that law,” he said. “Same-sex couples cannot get married and therefore do not have access to those rights. They should be available to all those who love each other, who take care of each other, who work and contribute to this society like everyone else.”
The announcement comes a year after several gay couples in Puerto Rico filed a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of Puerto Rican laws that define marriage as between a man and a woman, as well as those that prohibit same-sex marriage and the recognition of such marriages.
Article continues belowThe territory’s Justice Department had defended the laws before a federal judge who upheld them, but the case has been appealed to the 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Boston, and Miranda said the department will no longer intervene.
Hundreds celebrated the news in Puerto Rico, including Johanne Velez, an attorney and consultant who married her partner in New York in 2012 and is one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit.
“It is a historic day, and we are ecstatic,” she said in a phone interview. “When we say it is historic, we are changing the lives of people not just for us, but around us. We hope that it will make society a better place for future generations.”
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Miranda made the announcement a week after a group of legislators from Gov. Alejandro Garcia Padilla’s party said they supported gay marriage, including Senate President Eduardo Bhatia. While the governor has repeatedly stated that he is not in favor of gay marriage, he said he supports the change.
“Everyone knows my religious beliefs, but it’s not up to political leaders to impose our creeds,” he said. “We have to push for the progress of civil and human rights under equal conditions for everyone.”
Thirty-seven U.S. states allow same-sex marriages, a number that has quadrupled in the last two years. The U.S. Supreme Court is expected to issue a ruling by the end of June regarding several same-sex marriage cases that would also apply to Puerto Rico and four other U.S. territories.
Article continues belowOpposition lawmakers and religious leaders criticized Friday’s announcement and accused Garcia of imposing changes instead of consulting with the public and holding a referendum.
“This is a slap in the face to Puerto Rican society,” said legislator Maria Milagros Charbonier. “The government should not be playing around with issues as delicate as that of family, which is the cornerstone of our island.”
Amarilis Pagan, spokeswoman for a local equal rights committee, said in a phone interview that advocates will now push Puerto Rico’s government to reverse a law that bans adoptions by same-sex parents. The island’s Supreme Court upheld the law in a 2013 ruling following an appeal by a Puerto Rican woman who sought to adopt a teenage girl that her partner of more than 20 years had given birth to through in vitro fertilization.
Puerto Rico’s legislature has approved several measures in recent years in favor of the gay community, including one that prohibits employment discrimination based on gender or sexual orientation, and another that extends a domestic violence law to gay couples.
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