The Colombian senate adjourned Wednesday afternoon without voting on same-sex marriage legislation. But it now appears all but certain to fail when the chamber returns to the subject next Tuesday.
Two parties that control almost half the votes needed for passage, the Conservative Party and the Partido de la U, both closed ranks in opposition to the bill just before the session opened.
The hard turn against the legislation came after a series of confusing news reports that suggested Senate President Roy Barreras of the Partido de la U planned to vote in favor of marriage legislation. This unleashed pushback from religious conservative leaders and the Catholic church, which made a full court press ahead of Wednesday's debate to try to kill the bill.
Evangelical leaders accused Barreras of violating a pact he signed in 2010 with Pastor Jhon Milton Rodríguez, president of the Association of Christian Missions of the Valley. The pledge included this clause:
Promotion of development and respect for the family as God has established, which is to say to not promote nor support marriage between people of the same sex nor adoption of children on the part of these couples.
The Catholic hierarchy also weighed in ahead of yesterday's debate. Cardenal Rubén Salazar Gómez outlined the church's opposition in a carefully worded missive to members of Colombia's congress sent on May 9 that avoided the bombast that got Pope Francis into trouble when he was fighting Argentina's same-sex marriage law as the country's top bishop in 2010.
The church has nothing against homosexual people or the recognition and exercise of their legitimate rights and obligations. The Colombian [church leadership] is aware that, no matter the sexual orientation or behavior of each individual, all people have the same fundamental dignity before God and the state. The church's respectful disagreement with the so-called "homosexual marriage" is not based on postures of intolerance or discrimination or in the will to "impose" on society a religious belief outside the bounds of a healthy pluralist democracy.
To effectively protect the rights of homosexuals is not necessary, nor prudent, submit the institution of marriage to artificial modifications or to a social reengineering contrary to their nature and dynamics. … The legislator who does not act in accordance with these parameters would be responsible for the serious negative effects to society and have weakened marriage and the institution of the family.
Senate President Berraras subsequently distanced himself from the marriage legislation. Rather than calling same-sex unions "marriage," he proposed amending it to create a new institution called "solemn unions" that would give same-sex couples family rights, but bar them from adopting children.
"I will propose a figure called 'solemn unions' that would permit marriage but no adoption of children on the part of couples of the same-sex, that is a situation with which many Colombians are opposed," he said on April 13.
The language of this proposal seems designed to take advantage of an ambiguity in the ruling by the constitutional court that forced congress to take up a marriage bill in the first place.
In 2011, the court ordered congress to pass legislation giving same-sex couples equal family rights — but it was vague in the wording of its ruling. If congress failed to act by June 20, 2013, the court held, same-sex couples would be able to automatically go to notaries and register their unions. It did not say they could enter into "marriages"; rather, the ruling strongly implied that marriage would be allowed by using the same legal language to describe these partnerships as the Colombian legal code uses to describe marriages.
When Barreras announced his position, there was fear among same-sex marriage advocates that it could lead to a watering down of the marriage bill, which is sponsored by Senator Armando Benedetti of Bogota.
LGBT rights protesters held mock wedding ceremonies outside the congress on Monday to rally support for the bill.
"We demand the same rights with the same names," said Colombia Diversa's Marcela Sánchez during the protest. "Anything other than marriage…. is discriminatory," she said.
Some activists close to the marriage effort say it may be better for same-sex couples in Colombia if the bill dies altogether rather than passes without granting full marriage rights.
"With the pain of my soul and all the sadness that it brings me, I think this law is not going to pass and, in truth, I think it's better that it does not come out of this congress, at least right now," Felipe Montoya Castro, the lawyer who first brought the marriage lawsuit, said in a November interview.
If a bill does pass, activists like Montoya fear that it could be used to constrain marriage rights or block adoption, just as the legislative debate appears to be evolving. Though couples will likely have to return to court to access the full benefits of the 2011 ruling, their chances may be better there than with the conservative legislature.
The first test will be with the notaries, who are empowered by the court's 2011 ruling to start solemnizing same-sex unions on June 20. LGBT activists will demand that these be recognized as full marriages, and then they will have to go to court to establish that this truly is what the court intended in 2011. This will be a battle, since the superintendent of notaries Jorge Enrique Vélez has already declared that they will not.
"They will not be celebrating marriages. They will be a solemn, contractual link," he told El Tiempo.
The conflict nonetheless would open another opportunity for the court to weigh in, and the institution has a long history of expanding LGBT rights over the objections of conservative politicians and religious leaders.
"If the bill fails, the court will continue legislating," vowed its sponsor, Senator Armando Benedetti.