Public Outcry Leads Rosselló to Backtrack on Puerto Rico Religious Freedom and Conversion Therapy Controversy

Jun 13, 2019
9:32 PM

Two days after the Puerto Rico House of Representatives passed a religious freedom bill, governor Ricardo Rosselló asked legislative leaders to remove the bill, as well as a bill that would ban conversion therapy for minors except for religious exemptions.

The sudden move to stop the legislative process on both bills occurred after a massive outcry sparked serious concerns about how the bills would impact the island’s LGBT community.

“After discussing them with both legislative presidents and representative @TATACHARBONIER [María Milagros Charbonier], I have requested that both [bills] be withdrawn from the legislative process, since instead of reaching a consensus on a basis of mutual respect, it provokes the division of our people,” Rosselló tweeted in Spanish on Thursday afternoon.

Earlier on Thursday, Beatriz Rosselló, the governor’s wife and Puerto Rico’s first lady, issued a statement expression concern about the religious freedom bill.

The bill which passed Puerto Rico’s lower chamber was co-authored and heavily pushed by right-wing representative Milagros “Tata” Charbonier. It sought to grant “reasonable” accommodations to government employees as part of their religious beliefs.

The accommodations included freedom to exercise religious practices without penalty from employers. It also would exempt those with reasonable accommodations from providing benefits to third parties that clash with their religion.

“This measure that claimed to protect ‘religious freedom’ opened the door for vital government services to become arbitrary and even harmful to the community. This bill not only bordered on the unconstitutional but sought to normalize the dehumanization of Puerto Ricans by promoting that their personal lives be used as the sole reason for denying services to which we have rights as members of this society,” Ricardo Negrón, a gay Puerto Rican living in Orlando and Pulse Nightclub survivor, told Latino Rebels.

The religious freedom bill was introduced to the House by Rosselló himself on April as part of a consensus he supposedly had reached with between the island’s LGBT and faith communities.

But LGBT rights activist Pedro Julio Serrano and other allies called out the consensus, saying that only a handful of LGBT members (who were employees of the governor) and legislators who Serrano said are Christian fundamentalists were the ones consulted.

“The religious sector and the LBGT sector were not a part of this consensus, and the organizations against this established that there never was a consensus,” Serrano told Latino Rebels.

Opposition to the religious freedom bill was instant and very public, with human rights organizations calling out its unconstitutionality and how it would open the door to discrimination.

Not only did local activists push constituents to call their representatives and voice their opposition, but the bill caught the eye of Democratic presidential candidates Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders and Julián Castro.

On Wednesday, Puerto Rican celebrities Ricky Martin, Kanny García and Ednita Nazario voiced disapproval on social media.

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Me uno al llamado y palabras de @ricky_martin "Mientras el mundo llama a la equidad, al respeto a la diversidad y a la defensa de los derechos humanos, la Cámara de Representantes y el Gobernador de Puerto Rico impulsan una medida que revierte todo lo anterior para consentir la separación, el prejuicio, el odio y la falta de respeto a la individualidad. Lo hace bajo una premisa que tergiversa el derecho constitucional a no discriminar por raza, sexo o creencia, y en su lugar, justificar una protección irracional a las convicciones religiosas de los empleados del Gobierno. De hecho, como miembro de la comunidad LGBTT me uno al coro de voces que afirman que nunca ha habido un consenso entre nuestra gente LGBTT para validar o legalizar el discrimen en contra nuestra. El Proyecto de la Cámara 2069, radicado por petición del Gobernador Ricardo Rosselló e impulsado por la Representante Charbonier, no es otra cosa que abrirle la puerta al odio hacia todo aquel o aquella que no comparta una misma ideología, que pertenezca a la comunidad LGBTT, o que incluso no sea del mismo color de piel, entre tantas otras manifestaciones discriminatorias. La libertad religiosa implica respetar al otro de la misma manera que respetamos a los demás. Como defensor de los derechos humanos y miembro de la comunidad LGBTT, me opongo vehementemente al proyecto de libertad religiosa, el cual nos atrasa como sociedad y nos proyecta ante el mundo como un país retrógrado, e incapaz de guardar el derecho básico a la individualidad. Este proyecto no es representativo del Puerto Rico que todos amamos, defendemos y al que aspiramos. Hacemos un llamado al Senado y al Gobernador Ricardo Rosselló @ricardorossello para que no aprueben este proyecto que es una puerta abierta al odio y al discrimen."

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Martin went as far as to back up local LGBT activists’ claim that there was never a consensus with the community in the first.

“As a member of the LGBTT community, I join the constituency that affirms that there has never been a willingness among our LGBTT people to allow for the validation or legalization of discrimination against us,” said Martin through a written statement.

The other bill being shelved would have banned conversion therapy for minors except in cases of religious exemptions. The original conversion therapy bill sought to ban the practice, and in March, a heated debate in the Senate led Rosselló to just ban the practice altogether through executive order.

But Rosselló then backtracked on the conversion therapy controversy when he announced the consensus about the religious freedom bill the following month.

On Thursday afternoon, he changed his mind again, saying that both bills should be removed from the legislative process.

“Respect for human dignity and the protection of the rights of all citizens is a responsibility I assume as governor,” Rosselló said through a written statement.

Many quickly praised his decision to rethink the bills.

“The governor acted correctly in requesting the retraction of this bill, which far from safeguarding rights, creates discord and opens the way to institutionalized discrimination. The project should never have been considered, and as the leader of a country so rich in diversity, it should have been opposed from the beginning,” said Negrón, who is also co-director of Del Ambiente, an organization that helps to advocate for survivors of the Pulse shooting and their families.

Others, like Bryan Karhu Castro Vega, better known as Puerto Rican drag queen Ana Macho, said that nobody should be applauding Rosselló.

“A few months ago, he was opposing Tata’s [Charbonier] policies, then he was presenting her bill, and now he’s against it,” Castro Vega told Latino Rebels.

For Gabriel Laborde Torres, a 31-year-old Puerto Rican living in Pittsburgh, Rosselló conceded because it was expected of him to do so because he always needs to “look good” with the Democratic Party.

“It was a victory for the community that forced a strong mobilization in Puerto Rico, but it’s not like he’s doing it out of good faith or as an ally,” said Laborde Torres, who identifies as gay.

Rosselló represents the New Progressive Party (PNP), which favors statehood. He is also a registered Democrat.

“The saddest part is that this happened during Pride Month, which is a punch in the gut, but it let’s us know there is a long way to go,” Castro Vega said.

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Natalia Rodríguez Medina is the 2019 summer correspondent for Latino Rebels. She is a member the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism at CUNY’s Class of 2019. Natalia tweets from @nataliarodmed