Amid massive outcry over the religious freedom bill, Governor Ricardo Rosselló Nevares to backtrack and request that the measure, filed by his administration, be withdrawn from the legislative process.
The bill, which allowed public employees, protected by their religious beliefs, to refuse to provide a service to a person, was immediately removed from the House consideration. Yesterday, the expectation was that the same would happen in the Senate when it resumes activities on Monday.
The Senate and House, at the governor’s request, also withdrew the bill that sought to ban, in limited instances, so-called conversion therapy, “treatments” aimed at changing a person’s sexual orientation.
There seems to be no “consensus” now despite Rosselló Nevares claiming so in April after meeting during Holy Week with members of the religious sector and the LGBTTIQ community.
The issue was met with rejection, at least among a good part of the Puerto Rican artistic community and the U.S. liberal sectors, which publicly condemned the “religious freedom” bill because they understood that it legalizes discrimination against the LGBTTIQ community.
“We don’t know the details of the governor’s decision, but I understand that he simply gave in to the enormous public pressure. This is a bill that generates controversy and that many people, amid the madness in Puerto Rico, wonder why this issue reached the legislative level,” said public administration expert Mario Negrón Portillo.
He noted that such a situation, with a head of state withdrawing from a process that he himself promoted, usually has the effect of undermining his own power. And Rosselló Nevares has not had the best weeks asserting the political power his office used to have.
So far in June, the Oversight Board has announced that without government intervention, it reached pension restructuring agreements with the Teachers Association, the United Public Servants union and the Official Retirees Committee.
Political analyst Domingo Emanuelli said that more than a sign of the governor’s political weakness, that is a symptom of the desperation experienced in Puerto Rico and that the Board is leading a parallel government to that of the Puerto Ricans.
“I believe that, with the Board, the government becomes less and less pertinent. When people recognize that the ultimate power is in the Board, the dynamics change... It’s like when people stop talking to the manager and ask to talk to the owner of the business,” said Negrón Portillo.
Differences of opinion
In explaining his decision yesterday, the governor indicated that the legislative process had generated divisions among Puerto Ricans, so the best course of action was to desist from the process.
“My intention has always been to promote mutual respect among the different sectors of our society,” said Rosselló Nevares, who until recently defended the bill alleging that the reasonable accommodations it provided came with a provision ensuring everyone will receive the services needed.
The governor thanked Representative María Milagros Charbonier and Senator Miguel Romero for their participation in the search for consensus.
The meetings between the religious sectors and members of the LGBTTIQ community at La Fortaleza came after Rosselló Nevares vetoed a previous version of the religious freedom bill and the House shelved a bill banning conversion therapies. This last one was among the New Progressive Party (PNP) campaign promises.
“We both agreed (the governor and Charbonier) that it was unfolding a dangerous environment and one has to look at that... But when it comes to the religious sector, spirits rise,” the representative said in an interview. She ruled out filing a new version of the bill in controversy.
The religious freedom bill called the attention of politicians in Washington D.C., to the point that Democratic presidential pre-candidates Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, and Julián Castro issued public statements to condemn the measure.
In fact, Washington Resident Commissioner Jenniffer González joined public rejection yesterday morning. González said that there can be no public policy that leaves the door open or the mere insinuation of discrimination and that taking no action opens the door to discrimination.
The bill was also objected to by Ricky Martin, René Pérez (Residente), Ednita Nazario and Kany García, among others because it violates the rights of the LGBTTIQ community.
Senator Zoé Laboy, chairwoman of Social and Economic Revitalization Commission, celebrated the governor’s decision. She said that the important thing is that “Puerto Rico wins here.” She added that the two bills were bad for Puerto Rico and had said so “from the beginning”.
“Not all governors have the courage to recognize that what he did has to be amended,” added the senator, author of the first version of the other bill filed on conversion therapies that was withdrawn yesterday.
Popular Democratic Party (PPD) representative Luis Vega Ramos described what happened as an international embarrassment. “It is a monumental embarrassment that the good people in Puerto Rico and even the world´s public opinion have forced the governor to the pathetic gesture of surrendering by withdrawing what he himself filed,” he said.
“Faced with the disaster they did on Tuesday, social reaction from various sectors, people and people who expressed their indignation on social networks, it was demonstrated that, as the Judicial Committee chairwoman (Charbonier) said, we are the ones who vote, but we owe ourselves to the people,” said Independence Party representative Denis Márquez.
Reporters Javier Colón Dávila and José Delgado collaborated on this story.