Puerto Rico passes ‘religious freedom’ bill in House of Representatives

Puerto Rico’s House of Representatives has passed a ‘religious freedom’ bill, which human rights activists say will allow LGBT+ discrimination.

The bill states public policy in the US commonwealth will be “the protection of our citizens’ right to practice the religion of their choice,” according to local media.

It also ensures religious-based organisations will “not be discriminated against because of their religious affiliations” in accessing government services, permits, loans and other services that are “available to other non-religious entities.”

LGBT+ rights advocates say the bill opens the door to discrimination against the community.

In the US, proposed religious freedom laws protect the right of state-licensed workers to refuse to provide services based on their religious beliefs.

Democrats Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders have criticised the bill, which critics say will allow government employees to refuse services to citizens.

Warren wrote on Twitter: “Religious freedom cannot be used as an excuse to discriminate against the LGBTQ+ community. Everyone deserves to live and love freely—no exceptions.”

“Our laws as a society should work to end discrimination, not enable it. This bill passed by the Puerto Rico House of Representatives would put LGBTQ Puerto Ricans at risk of discrimination. It must not become law,” Sanders wrote on Twitter.

Although Puerto Rico’s non-discrimination and hate crimes laws include both sexual orientation and gender, discrimination and violence against the LGBT+ community remains common.

Earlier this year, the murder of 24-year-old outspoken gay trap artist Kevin Fret shocked the community but, as Paper magazine noted, also highlighted persistent homophobia against LGBT+ people.

In 2017, a gay bar in San Juan was hit by an arson attack.

There have been moves to improve LGBT+ rights in Puerto Rico, however. In March, governor Ricardo Rosselló signed an executive order banning so-called gay conversion therapy for minors.

Rosselló announced the decision on Wednesday (March 20), days after a bill on the subject was blocked in the House of Representatives by his own party, the New Progressive Party.

“As a father, as a scientist and as governor of everyone in Puerto Rico, I firmly believe that the idea that there are people in our society who need treatment due to their gender identity or those who love is not only absurd, but it is harmful to so many children and young people who deserve to be treated with dignity and respect,” the governor said in remarks quoted in local media.