PANAMA CITY — The lawyer who represents two same-sex couples seeking marriage rights in Panama last week said a ruling in their favor would resonate beyond the country’s LGBT community.
“This is very good not only for this community, but also for the entire society to become more in tune with the 21st century and to be a more just society,” Carlos Ernesto González of Morgan & Morgan, which is Panama’s largest law firm, told the Washington Blade on Feb. 28 during an interview at his office in the Panamanian capital. “That’s our aim at the end in reality, nothing else.”
González represents Enrique Jelenszky, who legally married his husband, John Winstanley, abroad, and Álvaro Levy, whose spouse is from the U.S.
Panama Supreme Court Justice Luis Ramón Fábrega last summer heard oral arguments in both lawsuits. They have been subsequently combined into one case.
Panamanian law does not legally recognize same-sex couples. González told the Blade he had wanted to file a marriage lawsuit, but it was difficult to find gays and lesbians who wanted to become plaintiffs.
“It took us almost a year to find someone willing to go ahead with this fight,” said González, noting Jelenszky contacted him about a potential legal challenge.
“He (Jelenszky) was actually thinking of doing the same thing when we got into contact with each other,” added González. “So we started that case.”
González also said Morgan & Morgan’s main partner, Eduardo Morgan, was close to an uncle in New York who was gay. González said the uncle told Morgan a decade ago that “gay marriage” was important “because it provided stability to society and he saw it with his uncle.”
Government under increased pressure after landmark LGBT ruling
Panama would become the first country in Central America to allow same-sex couples to legally marry if the Supreme Court rules in favor of Jelenszky and Levy.
Panamanian First Lady Lorena Castillo — whose office has launched an anti-discrimination campaign with U.N. AIDS — and Vice President Isabel de Saint Malo are among the officials in the Central American country who support marriage.
Evan Wolfson, founder of Freedom to Marry, and Hunter T. Carter of the New York City Bar Association, who works with advocates throughout Latin America who are seeking marriage rights for same-sex couples in their respective countries, have both filed amicus briefs in support of the plaintiffs. Iván Chanis, a gay Panamanian lawyer who once lived in D.C., is working pro bono with González and Morgan & Morgan on their case.
The Panamanian Roman Catholic and Pentecostal churches continue to spearhead opposition to marriage in the country.
Fábrega last October drafted a ruling that concluded the two portions of Panama’s family code that prevent gays and lesbians from marrying are not unconstitutional. Fábrega also said the Panamanian National Assembly should consider whether to allow same-sex couples to enter into civil unions.
Fábrega last month withdrew his draft ruling after the Inter-American Court of Human Rights on Jan. 9 issued a landmark decision that recognizes same-sex marriage and transgender rights.
Panama is among the countries that recognize the American Convention on Human Rights, which the Inter-American Court of Human Rights enforces.
The Panamanian government has signaled it will comply with the ruling, but it remains unclear whether conservative justices will argue the Inter-American Court of Human Rights decision is not legally binding. Two of the justices’ terms have ended, but González pointed out to the Blade the National Assembly has rejected President Juan Carlos Varela’s nominees to succeed them.
The two justices whose terms have expired oppose marriage.
“Right now we’re at an impasse,” González told the Blade. “These two shouldn’t be there, but they are there and the president has not presented the other two and the opponents want these two to vote.”
The Panamanian Alliance for Life and the Family, which represents 10 religious organizations and other groups, this week is scheduled to hold a march against marriage in Panama City. González noted these groups continue to pressure the Supreme Court to rule against the issue.
“They’re like an army,” he told the Blade. “Whatever their leadership says, they’re there and they are organized and they will be out in droves, but they are a minority here.”
González added the Catholic Church “is much” stronger in their opposition and “has come out hammering us stronger and in a way that has never been seen before” in Panama.
“I think they’ve done it wrongly, even for their own people,” he said. “They seem to be extreme.”
‘We’re going to end up winning’
The Inter-American Court of Human Rights issued its ruling after the Costa Rican government asked for an advisory opinion on whether it has an obligation to extend property rights to same-sex couples and allow trans people to change their name and gender marker on identity documents.
Costa Rican Vice President Ana Helena Chacón said her country’s government would comply with the ruling. Fabricio Alvarado, a former journalist and Pentecostal minister, last month won the first round of Costa Rica’s presidential election after he made his opposition to the decision the centerpiece of his campaign.
Costa Rican LGBT rights advocates with whom the Blade has spoken said they are concerned that Alvarado will defeat leftist candidate Carlos Alvarado in the second round on April 1.
Panama’s presidential elections will take place next year.
It remains unclear when the Supreme Court will rule in the case, but González told the Blade the justices “won’t risk for this to become an issue in the election.” He said a ruling in favor of marriage rights for same-sex couples could factor into the presidential campaign, but the situation in Panama is “a bit more complicated” than in Costa Rica.
“This is a more merchant society, more forward-thinking and internationally affected,” González told the Blade. “Even though we have a minority here — probably 70 percent of the population is against same-sex marriage — it’s not as radical as it might be in Costa Rica.”
González stressed he remains optimistic the Supreme Court will rule in favor of marriage, in spite of the potential political implications.
He noted Panama has complied with every Inter-American Court of Human Rights ruling. González also pointed out two of the justices who publicly oppose marriage because of their religious beliefs have issued “the best human rights decisions” that are based on the American Convention of Human Rights.
“I think that we’re going to end up winning,” he said.