Legislating under court order: Colombia and gay marriage

Senador Armando Benedetti

Senador Armando Benedetti

The day after U.S. voters approved gay marriage in three states and the French government adopted legislation of its own, I was offered an interview with the sponsor of gay marriage legislation in the Colombian Senate. I got the email just a couple hours before I needed to be at the capitol, and I wasn’t in the best shape for the meeting. I’d gotten about four hours sleep because I was up late watching the U.S. election returns, I was experiencing acute intestinal distress, and I didn’t have even a basic understanding of the politics in Bogotá. But I jumped at the chance and spent the next several hours cramming.

The day was an odd one for LGBT politics in the Colombian capital. There had been a showdown that morning in the Bogotá city council between councilman Marco Fidel Ramirez and the director of the local public television channel, Hollman Morris. Ramirez, who objected to pro-LGBT programming on the channel, had demanded a list of all of its LGBT employees.

Having committed the president’s name and the partisan split of the Senate to memory, I walked down to the capitol. This part of Bogotá is gorgeous, with colonial buildings flanked by lush green mountainsides. The light is incredibly sharp and clear at this altitude, too, making the buildings look like they’re glowing.

I left myself plenty of time to get there because I almost always get lost. But I found the Senate without a problem (on the main square next to the cathedral—hard to miss) and someone escorted me to his office. The capitol is a neoclassical cube open on the side that faces the square. Its hallways are all open to the outside air with floors of broad hardwood.

Senator Armando Benedetti’s office is on the second floor. Two of his aides filled me in on his bill while we waited for him. Just that morning there was supposed to be a hearing on it, but not enough senators had showed up to create a quorum.

“I can swear that their absence has nothing to do with the proposal and may be due to a lack of discipline,” Benedetti had told a newspaper after the cancelled hearing. But it reflected the uphill fight the bill has despite the fact that Congress is operating under an ultimatum from the court.

It’s not clear how important it is for gay couples that Congress pass anything. In 2011, the Constitutional Court ruled that same-sex couples have the right to have their relationships recognized and constitute a family under Colombian law. They instructed Congress to change the law to comply with this order. But they also said that if Congress does nothing within two years, same-sex couples could go to a notary or judge and enter into a “formal and solemn agreement” to protect their unions.

Benedetti and his staff are confident that, one way or another, couples will be able to get married in 2013. But one of the lawyers who helped craft the lawsuit isn’t so sure.

The court issued a “Frankenstein decision” that reflected a compromise between its conservative and liberal wings, Mauricio Albarracin had told me that morning in a Skype call from Washington, where he’s getting a masters of law. It said the couples have the right to enter these “formal and solemn agreements”—a phrase used to define marriage in existing law—but didn’t actually say that same-sex couples have the right to marry.

“If you read the decision … it’s like two decisions in one,” Albarracin said. If couples try to marry under the order without congressional action, he worries, the judges and notaries will turn them away, saying that “because the court does not use [the word] marriage, we cannot marry you.”

I waited two hours to ask Benedetti about this, passing part of this time explaining to his staff that the US isn’t an extremely liberal country just because Washington and Colorado legalized marijuana in votes the night before. (I spent the rest of the time in a free cubical getting caught up on election fallout on Twitter.)

When Benedetti finally arrived at 5:45, there were a half-dozen people waiting for him. His press secretary swept me into his office, and we spoke for about ten minutes. It was like a parody—every minute, and aide would walk in carrying a cell phone with yet another call for him.

“This proposal, I would say it has the votes in committee and in the Senate,” he told me in between phone calls. “But … in the House, we confront a problem…. [And] there’s an external problem which is the Catholic religion, which always puts its principles above the [rights] of minorities.”

But though it sounded like the bill had very little chance to actually pass, he maintained, “The court made it very easy.”

One thought on “Legislating under court order: Colombia and gay marriage

  1. Pingback: Why Latin America is beating the U.S. to marriage equality | After Marriage

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