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Courts finally move on with same-sex marriage cases in Panama

Courts finally move on with same-sex marriage cases in Panama

  • Panama sees protests by both LGBT+ campaigners and religious extremists over marriage equality.
Pride in Panama City

Both LGBT+ campaigners and religious fundamentalists are protesting as courts debate the future of same-sex marriage in Panama.

The Inter-American Court of Human Rights, which theoretically has power over Panama, has already ruled the country must legalize same-sex marriage.

But despite that, the issue has stalled. Now the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights is hearing evidence on marriage equality in Panama. Moreover, the country’s own Supreme Court of Justice is also moving forward.

It’s had a backlog of marriage equality cases dating back as far as 2016. However it has now, finally, made some progress.

The court has assigned a new judge to draft its response to the cases. If five out of the nine Supreme Court justices agree with the draft, they will then go on to consider the cases in detail.

The outcomes from both the commission and the court are far from certain. However, it is clear the issue is again stirring strong passions in Panama.

LGBT+ campaigners protested on the steps of the Supreme Court on Friday (2 October), demanding marriage equality. Moreover, they also called for wider LGBT+ human rights, including a lifting of Panama’s ban on gay and bi men donating blood.

Meanwhile religious organizations will march to the court tomorrow (7 October) to demand the justices reject same-sex marriage.

Panama’s long legal battle for marriage equality

The courts may be the easiest way to drive marriage equality in Panama. Politicians have long maintained ‘traditional’ standards on marriage.

Indeed, around 63% of Panamanians are Catholic and the Catholic Church has repeatedly intervened in the issue, including blocking a same-sex unions proposal in 2004.

Last November, Panama’s National Assembly gave initial approval to a constitutional change defining marriage as between a man and a woman.

However, LGBT+ Panamanians and their allies protested. In turn, this prompted President Laurentino Cortizo to recommend scrapping the amendment. A committee is now analyzing it.

Despite this, a series of court cases have challenged Panama to recognize same-sex marriage.

One case, dating from 2016, involves a couple demanding the country recognizes same-sex marriages registered abroad.

Meanwhile, the Supreme Court has united it with a 2017 case which challenges the ban on same-sex couples marrying under Article 26 of the Panamanian Civil Code. A lesbian couple also joined the legal fight in 2018.

The Supreme Court will also take into account a ruling from the Inter-American Court of Human Rights.

Back in November 2017, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights ruled that all of its signatory countries must allow same-sex marriage. It published this ruling in January 2018.

Even Panama’s Attorney General has admitted the ruling is fully binding on the country.

However, while Ecuador and Costa Rica have used the ruling to push through marriage equality, other member states haven’t.

Argentina, Brazil, Colombia and Uruguay also offer same-sex marriage. But Barbados, Bolivia, Chile, Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Guatemala, Haiti, Honduras, Mexico, Nicaragua, Paraguay, Peru, Suriname – like Panama – have not acted.

It is not clear how the commission may enforce the court’s will.

Marriage equality ‘not a pipe dream’

Meanwhile, Panama’s overall LGBT+ record is poor. While homosexuality and gender change are legal, it doesn’t protect LGBT+ people from discrimination or allow same-sex partners to adopt.

This year, it emerged that police were using gender-based coronavirus lockdown restrictions to harass trans people.

Moreover, a 2017 poll showed 78% of Panamanians opposed same-sex marriage. Just 22% support it. That’s a figure that hasn’t shifted since at least 2013.

Despite that, Human Rights Watch argues that a shift in Panama’s stance is possible. Campaigners were heartened when the government spoke out about LGBT+ coronavirus lockdown abuses. Human Rights Watch says:

‘Instead of writing discrimination into the constitution, Panama should uphold its obligations under international law and promote equal rights for all its citizens.  

‘This is not a pipe dream. In July, the Panamanian government took an important step forward in support of the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people.

‘Responding to acts of discrimination during the gender-based quarantine, five government ministries and the Ombudsperson’s Office issued a statement that said, “the National Government rejects any type of hostility, violence, xenophobia, homophobia, transphobia or discrimination.”

‘Citing the country’s international obligations, high-level officials showed a strong political commitment to the principles of equality and non-discrimination.’

Human Rights Watch hopes the government will now respond to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights in the same spirit.

Panama is sandwiched between two marriage equality supporting countries – Colombia to the south and Costa Rica to the north. The coming months could determine how long it takes Panama to join them.