An evangelical group prayer, Guatemala, 2014 | Flickr/amslerPIX. CC BY-NC 2.0. Some rights reserved
The first legislative proposal by evangelical groups in Guatemala would legalise homophobia, threaten women who have miscarriages with prison terms, and allow the criminal prosecution of abortion rights campaigners.
Bill 5272, proposed to ‘protect life and the family’, “is the first bill drafted by the evangelical churches in Guatemala,” said Elvis Molina, a lawyer and pastor with the Iglesia Cristiana Visión de Fe (Christian Church Vision of Faith), who drafted the bill.
It was introduced in Congress last year as a popular initiative supported by 30,000 signatures, and was immediately endorsed by 22 legislators led by Aníbal Rojas, a member of the evangelical party VIVA (Vision with Values).
The draft law was then approved by a constitutional committee in Congress and passed two reading sessions on the floor. It's now just one plenary vote away from becoming official legislation.
“Congress has more pressing deadlines […] like passing the 2019 budget,” Rojas told openDemocracy this autumn. But the bill could be voted on next month; he said they will put it on the floor’s schedule in January.
Legislator Sandra Morán, however, celebrated the postponement of the final vote as a victory. The feminist and rights campaigner describes the bill as a threat to progressive movements and her own legislative agenda.
“We’ve been battling to convince legislators that this is a nefarious law with terrible consequences for women, girls and the LGBTI community,” Morán told openDemocracy.
‘We’ve been battling to convince legislators that this is a nefarious law with terrible consequences for women, girls and the LGBTI community’
The first feminist and openly lesbian woman to win a seat in Congress, Morán announced plans in 2017 to legislate on hate crimes, gender identity, same-sex civil unions and abortion rights for child and adolescent girls in cases of rape.
Then, Morán said, evangelical groups “quickly moved to introduce the 5272 [bill], mounted a huge public lobby and took me to court”. Three legal cases were filed against her, accusing her of promoting abortions for girls aged nine to 14. Two of these cases were rejected by the Supreme Court last year. One is still pending.
“There was a national movement,” she said, against her progressive agenda. Molina, the drafter of the conservative ‘life and family’ bill, tells a similar story.
“We anticipated legislator Morán’s initiatives, organised two rallies and all sort of social and political activities before introducing [our] bill,” he said, which will “protect our country and the Christian faith professed by 90% of our people.”
With their bill, evangelicals in Guatemala are taking aim at what religious conservatives internationally call ‘gender ideology’ – movements in favour of women’s and LGBT rights, which they say threaten the ‘traditional family’.
“They promote this idea that human sexuality and traditional family are obsolete social constructs,” said Molina, describing it as a “postmodern philosophical trend seeking to invade our country and modify essential values of our culture”.
Gay Pride, Guatemala City, 2010 | Flickr/ilainie. CC BY-SA 2.0. Some rights reserved
The evangelicals’ bill would establish prison terms of two to four years for women convicted of what it calls “culpable abortion” – when a miscarriage occurs due to their negligence or reckless behaviour, by a physician or a third person.
Under this provision, any woman who has a miscarriage may be forced “to demonstrate in court that it wasn’t [the result of] negligence”, warned the non-profit sexual and reproductive health provider Aprofam.
Molina told openDemocracy that miscarriages would not be criminalised, but that “culpable abortions [currently] go unpunished”, with the bill allowing for their “investigation at least”.
Bill 5272 also stiffens existing penalties on abortion, with prison sentences of five to ten years, and introduces more obstacles to legal terminations.
Currently, abortion is only legal in Guatemala if the woman’s life is at risk, but unofficial estimates suggest there are 65,000 abortions a year in the country.
Campaigners challenging this restrictive regime could themselves be sentenced to six to ten years in prison and fines under the new offence of “promoting abortion”.
The draft law also explicitly forbids same-sex marriages and civil unions (which are already unrecognised by Guatemala courts) and effectively legalises homophobia with its proposed provision that “no person can be criminally prosecuted for rejecting sexual diversity and gender ideology”.
‘The draft law also forbids same-sex marriages and civil unions and effectively legalises homophobia’
Individuals’ rights to freedom of conscience, says the bill, mean that they must not be “forced to accept as normal non-heterosexual behaviours and customs”.
This provision “just protects our right to conscientious objection […] as gender ideology seeks to label as discriminatory any manifestation to refute it,” says Molina, giving the example of preaching in church against homosexuality.
The draft law further forbids public and private schools from promoting “policies or programmes related to sexual diversity and gender ideology”, including “teaching as normal sexual behaviours different to heterosexuality or incompatible with the human being’s biological and genetic features”.
If passed, this legislation would also require the national government and its diplomatic representatives to follow its provisions as Guatemala’s official stance on related issues at the UN or other international organisations.
“We are preventing Guatemala from engaging on any convention on gender diversity,” said Molina, referring to agreements relating to all forms of discrimination and intolerance that have been discussed at the Organization of American States (OAS).
He wants this law to prevent the country from negotiating such treaties that, once entered into force, Guatemala would have to comply with.
Evangelical Church Santa Maria de Jesus, Guatemala, 2009 | Flickr/amslerPIX. CC BY-NC 2.0. Some rights reserved
Bill 5272 is the first piece of legislation drafted by the Evangelical National Movement on Pastoral Action (Menap), a legal and advocacy organisation for churches and pastors. Menap litigates court cases on tax, civil, municipal, criminal and environmental issues. It also defends pastors in legal trouble and advocates for Guatemala Evangelical Alliance’s interests.
The coalition includes pastors from 33 organisations, each one representing dozens or hundreds of churches across Guatemala. One member, Iglesia del Príncipe de Paz, represents more than 1,400 congregations.
Molina told openDemocracy that Menap is funded by its members. The coalition also has international groups in its network, including the Christian and Missionary Alliance, which was founded in the US and is now headquartered in Brazil.
Menap’s chairman, Marco Antonio Rodríguez, also serves as the representative of the Christian and Missionary Alliance in Guatemala.
He said that Menap has the Alliance’s “full support”, including “among other things, the building for its offices, furniture and equipments, secretary, janitor and cook, payment of electricity, water and phone services, foods, etc”.
‘Menap is funded by its members. The coalition also has international groups in its network’
Morán, the feminist legislator and rights advocate, introduced a bill in 2016 to protect child and adolescent girls from sexual violence, abuse and exploitation, including by granting them abortion rights in cases of rape.
In the first six months of this year, more than 50,000 girls aged ten to 19 became pregnant, 6,000 of whom were aged ten to 15, according to a report by Guatemala’s Observatory on Sexual and Reproductive Health (Osar).
Every year, Osar warns, thousands of young girls are raped and do not receive urgent medical attention to prevent pregnancies and sexual diseases. Rather, they’re often “forced to give birth”, and offered to their rapists in marriage.
Molina conceded that “if a girl is raped, that’s a crime.” But, he said, “we can’t solve a crime with another crime,” referring to abortion.
Morán, whose own progressive agenda was shattered amid these evangelicals’ successful counter-campaigns, warned that it will not be difficult for their draft bill to get the votes it needs to pass in Congress.
“It’s a threat,” she told openDemocracy. Although the law, if passed, could still be challenged in the constitutional court, Morán described it as “awful” evidence of how “religious thinking is more and more embedded in public institutions”.
“We thought this bill was so badly done that it wouldn’t pass, but now we are more and more concerned,” added Carlos Romero Prieto, executive secretary of the National Network of Sexual Diversity and HIV (Rednads).
“It would affect our organisation and legitimise intolerance,” he warned, in a country where violence is already part of many LGBTI peoples’ lives.
According to Rednads, 19 LGBTI people were murdered in Guatemala in the six months between May and November this year, including eight trans women.
Get our weekly email