Same-sex couples in Costa Rica will be able to enter into civil unions if the Legislative Assembly approves a bill presented this week by a group of lawmakers – though opponents including Catholic Church leaders have already thrown their weight against such a change.
As in other countries around the world where such proposals are being discussed, critics say it would erode the country’s religious and social values and open the door to gay adoption or marriage.
Supporters of the Law of Same-Sex Civil Unions, meanwhile, say approving the bill is the only way Costa Rica can live up to its reputation as a country of tolerance and harmony.
“The gays, lesbians, bisexuals and transgendered (GLBT) of Costa Rica have all the duties, but not all the rights” of other citizens, gay-rights activist Abelardo Araya said at a press conference Tuesday where the bill was unveiled. “This isn’t a bill that invents
something new. These couples already exist.”
Legislator and evangelical pastor Guyón Massey says that may be true, but doesn’t justify a government seal of approval for same-sex relationships. He’s already presented a bill to ensure gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender citizens can’t adopt children. Massey, the only legislator for the National Restoration Party, said the same-sex union law would “violate Biblical principles and societal tradition.”
Asked whether he agrees with the bill’s proponents that ensuring equality for gays and lesbians is a human rights issue, he said that by that logic, “delinquents, thieves…any person could turn to (the argument of) human rights to legitimize their practices.”
The Tico Times faxed a copy of the proposed law to Monsignor José Francisco Ulloa, president of the Episcopal Conference, an organization comprising the country’s Catholic bishops. After reviewing the bill, the bishop said it “simply can’t be approved – it means accepting gay and lesbian marriage. The Church will never, never accept this.”
Ulloa said he might not oppose limited rights for same-sex partners, as long as their union is not equated with marriage. The bill presented this week, however, “goes against nature and against God’s law.”
He added that should the bill progress in the assembly, which he deems unlikely, Church leaders would “have a talk with legislators who are Catholic, which is the majority.”
Those supporting the bill, which has been in the works since last year, include Ana Helena Chacón of the Social Christian Unity Party (PUSC), José Merino of the Broad Front, Carlos Manuel Gutiérrez of the Libertarian Movement, and Andrea Morales of the Citizen Action Party (PAC).
The proposed law would give gay people in civil unions the rights heterosexual couples in such unions enjoy, such as a share of assets after a partner’s death or the right to Social Security System (Caja) benefits through a partner.
When the lawmakers were asked whether they expect resistance from the rest of the assembly when discussion of the bill begins, Merino admitted it could be a tough sell.
“There are accumulated prejudices. There’s fear,” he said, as his colleagues nodded in agreement.
The assembly’s leading faction, the 25-legislator National Liberation Party (PLN), was keeping quiet about its stance on the bill at press time. Faction spokeswoman María Eugenia González told The Tico Times it’s too early for the party to declare its position.
A Growing Debate
The debate over same-sex unions is a recent, but not brand-new, development in Costa Rica.
Last year, the Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court (Sala IV) rejected a lawsuit by lawyer Yashin Castrillo, who sought to marry his same-sex partner, filed in 2003.
Though the court declared that Costa Rica’s constitutional norms on marriage do not apply to gay couples, it also stated that “an absence of adequate regulation exists” regarding same-sex unions.
At the time, Castrillo said that the ruling – which stated that “heterogeneous couples are not in the same situation as homosexual couples” – placed Costa Rica “back in the cavemen era.” The court had taken years to consider the case because a ruling in favor of Castrillo would have changed both the Family Code, which prohibits same-sex marriage, and the Criminal Code, which declares such marriages punishable by six months to three years in prison (TT, May 26, 2006). Castrillo went on to take his case to the
Inter-American Human Rights Commission, where it is still under consideration, activist Araya told The Tico Times this week.
Three other bills related to gay rights are under consideration as well. One is a modification to the Family Code to define “uniones de hecho” – which grant rights to heterosexual couples who have lived together for at least two years – as a relationship between two people, rather than between a man and a woman.
Asked why supporters of the civil-unions bill don’t just throw their support behind the Family Code change, which would have most of the same effects, Araya said the widespread prejudice in Costa Rica makes it necessary to enact a special bill that specifically acknowledges alternative sexual preferences.
“We deserve special protection because this country has homophobia that’s systemized, and often institutionalized,” he said.
Another bill being discussed would guarantee the rights of all those without medical impediments to donate blood, overturning a 17-year-old decree prohibiting gay or bisexual men from donating blood. The Sala IV is considering a lawsuit filed last year arguing that the decree, which also prohibits blood donation by prostitutes, is unconstitutional (TT, Dec. 8, 2006).
Finally, the assembly’s Childhood and Adolescence Commission is considering Massey’s bill to prohibit adoption by gays and lesbians. Commission member Morales explained that existing adoption legislation does not specifically prohibit such adoptions.
In a highly polemic case in 2003, courts upheld the adoption of an abandoned boy by transvestite activist Luis Gerardo Mairena (TT, Sept. 26, 2003). That adoption wouldn’t have been legal had a bill like Massey’s proposal been in place, Morales explained, adding that she opposes such a restriction.
Massey says he wants to ensure that “no little window (for adoptions by gays) stays open.”
Monsignor Ulloa agrees with Massey’s stance.
“Of course they should prohibit it,” he said. “Kids need to have a mother and a father.”
Same-sex marriage is legal in Belgium, Spain, the Netherlands, Canada and the U.S. state of Massachusetts, according to documents distributed by legislator Chacón.
Same-sex civil unions are legal in several countries and U.S. states; Latin American regions that allow such unions include Buenos Aires and the province of Río Negro in Argentina, the state of Río Grade do Sul in Brazil, and Colombia.