Religious Liberty Act already applies to Puerto Rico
SAN JUAN — A statute similar to legislation that would create the Religious Liberty Act that is pending Gov. Ricardo Rosselló’s signature has been enacted in the United States since 1993, and it applies to Puerto Rico.
The law, known by the same name as the local bill, was originally intended to protect religious communities, such as indigenous tribes of the United States, from having Christian beliefs imposed on them by the majority Anglo-Saxon, Christian population.
However, over time, the federal law has become a tool for ultraconservative religious groups to prevent the government from imposing behaviors that do not conform to their beliefs.
The original legislation, presented in 1993 by U.S. Rep. Chuck Schumer and U.S. Sen. Ted Kennedy, both from New York, received unanimous support in the House of Representatives and only three votes against in the Senate. Back then, the idea was to counteract the effect of a judicial decision that allowed an employer to dismiss and decline unemployment benefits to a man from a Native American tribe in Oregon.
However, that law was ruled unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1997 in the case of Boerne v. Flores, on the grounds that Congress could not impose that type of legislation on states, but its enactment at the federal level was permitted.
In 2003, the law was amended to allow its enactment in U.S. jurisdictions, such as the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico.
About 20 states have legislated similar statutes locally, while nine others have legislation introduced but not yet been approved.
“What this legislation allows is that government employees can oppose taking action that goes against their religious beliefs. For example, [the law] could allow an employee of the Demographic Registry to deny making a gender change on a birth certificate if a transsexual requests it. It would also allow a judge to decline to [officiate] a same-sex marriage, or a public official to [deny] the adoption process of a minor by a homosexual [gay or lesbian] couple,” explained Carlos Dalmau, a professor and attorney.
He stressed the problem with this type of statute is that, in extreme cases, it could put at risk the life or well-being of people because their lifestyle is contrary to the religious beliefs of the official who attended their case.
Such would be the case, for example, of a police officer who refuses to intervene in a same-sex case of domestic violence, Dalmau said. “This could be a problem, and it implies risks for that population,” he warned.
The language used in local law is very similar to what is used in other U.S. jurisdictions, and have passed constitutional scrutiny. Nonetheless, Gov. Rosselló said earlier in the week that if the approved bill is not substantially different from the one presented last year, he would veto it.The governor said he would not enact any bill that promotes discrimination. “Our administration has clearly established that it will not limit rights that have been granted to different sectors of our society, both judicially and legislatively,” he said.
However, if Rosselló were not to approve House Bill 1080, the Legislature could try to obtain the votes needed to override the governor’s veto, something the legislative body has carried out three times during the current administration.