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Court Strikes Puerto Rico's Gay Marriage Ban as Marriages Begin

By Casey C. Sullivan, Esq. on July 14, 2015 4:51 PM

Puerto Rico began accepting applications for marriage licenses from same-sex couples yesterday, less than three weeks after the Supreme Court ruled that gay and lesbian couples have a fundamental right to marriage. Puerto Rico was the only part of the First Circuit that had not legalized same-sex marriage prior to the Supreme Court's ruling in Obergefell.

The District Court of Puerto Rico was also one of the few federal courts to uphold a same-sex marriage ban in recent years. The First Circuit formally reversed that opinion in a brief judgment issued last Wednesday.

Unique in the First -- and Not Just for Its Tropical Weather

Same-sex couples began applying for marriage licenses throughout Puerto Rico this Monday and the first territory-recognized same-sex marriages are expected to begin on Wednesday. Puerto Rico's path to marriage equality has been unique for the First Circuit. Massachusetts, of course, issued the country's first same-sex marriage licenses in 2004. Vermont's Supreme Court had ruled the state's ban on same-sex marriage unconstitutional in 1999, but only allowed civil unions until 2009. New Hampshire, Maine, and Rhode Island legalized same-sex marriage in 2009, 2012, and 2013 respectively.

That left Puerto Rico as the only holdout in the First Circuit. Indeed, its history with gay marriage shares more with Colorado or Ohio than any New England state. Puerto Rico banned same-sex marriage in 1999, just as many states were adopting similar Defense of Marriage Acts. 

As in the rest of the United States, opposition to same-sex marriage has softened in Puerto Rico over time, though in 2014, a majority of the island still opposed it. In 2013, Pedro Rossello, the conservative former governor who had signed the law banning same-sex marriage, announced his support for marriage equality. That opinion was echoed in the policies of current governor Alejandro Garcia Padilla, who refused to defend the law in 2015.

Sorpresa Ninguna: PR's Marriage Ban Is Unconstitutional

As the First Circuit's last holdout on same-sex marriage, Puerto Rico was also the only district in which it was litigated. In a 2014 ruling, the federal district court in Puerto Rico upheld the island's marriage ban, finding that the Supreme Court had already ruled on the issue in Baker v. Nelson, a 1970's case denying a petition for cert over same-sex marriage. The First Circuit stayed the appeal after the Supreme Court took up Obergefell, which eventually led to the High Court finding a constitutional right to marriage for same-sex couples.

That left the First Circuit with little to do but vacate the earlier judgment. It did so last Wednesday, saying, to no one's surprise, that the ban was unconstitutional.

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