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Same-sex civil unions in the Philippines: What you need to know

Xave Gregorio - Philstar.com
Same-sex civil unions in the Philippines: What you need to know
Members of the LGBT community take part in the Metro Manila Pride March at the Cultural Center of the Philippines grounds in Pasay, Metro Manila on June 25, 2022.
AFP / Jam Sta. Rosa

MANILA, Philippines — For Sen. Robinhood Padilla, it is “high time” for the Catholic-majority Philippines to start giving same-sex couples the same rights married straight couples have long enjoyed under the country’s laws.

“It is high time that the Philippines provides equal rights and recognition for couples of the same sex with no prejudice as to sexual relationships are protected and recognized and given access to basic social protection and security,” Padilla said in the explanatory note of Senate Bill No. 449.

He added, “Providing equal rights and privileges for same-sex couples will in no way diminish or trample on the rights granted to married couples.”

It is not an entirely novel proposal as Rep. Pantaleon Alvarez (Davao del Norte) had filed a similar measure in 2017 when he was speaker of the House of Representatives, which made it easier for lawmakers in the lower chamber to support the bill.

But does Padilla, a neophyte senator, have the numbers this time for a civil union bill to be passed in Congress?

Here’s what you need to know about moves to legalize same-sex civil unions in the Philippines.

How did civil union bills and similar measures fare before?

Currently, there are two bills in Congress seeking to recognize same-sex civil unions in the country. One is Padilla’s in the Senate and the other is Rep. Bernadette Herrera-Dy’s (Bagong Henerasyon party-list) civil partnership bill in the House.

The Padilla and Herrera-Dy measures are similar in that they seek to institutionalize civil unions for same-sex couples, with the goal of giving them the same rights that married straight couples have enjoyed for so long under the country’s laws.

“It aims to be a landmark effort to provide civil rights, benefits and responsibilities to couples previously unable to marry by giving them due recognition and protection from the State,” Herrera-Dy said in the explanatory note of House Bill No. 1015.

Herrera-Dy had filed the same measure in the 18th Congress. The party-list lawmaker’s measure never passed the population and family relations committee.

It was first introduced in the 17th Congress by Alvarez who, by virtue of his being House speaker, managed to rally lawmakers behind it. Still, this was not enough for the measure to pass the chamber as it got stuck in the women and gender equality panel.

Bills seeking to give some rights that married straight couples have, especially over property, have been filed by Sen. Imee Marcos in the 18th Congress and Rep. Edcel Lagman (Albay) in the 16th Congress, but these too never passed the committee level.

In the 14th Congress, then Sen. Miriam Defensor-Santiago filed a bill seeking to exempt same-sex marriages solemnized abroad from the prohibition against it in the Family Code, but this also did not hurdle the committee level.

What difference does civil union have with marriage?

Currently, marriage as defined by the Family Code is restricted between a man and a woman. 

This means that for now, same-sex couples cannot enjoy the same things that married straight couples do including adopting children, getting labor benefits and privileges, getting tax exemptions, consenting to medical procedures, and getting visitation rights in hospitals and detention facilities.

Should the civil union bills pass Congress and are enacted into law, same-sex couples who enter into a civil union would get the same benefits as married straight couples.

The key difference, really, between the two is the name — which appears to be lawmakers’ way of dodging criticism from the religious sector that these proposals are trying to violate the sanctity of marriage, which they believe to be exclusive between a man and woman.

What happened to the SC petition?

The exclusivity of marriage between a man and a woman in the Family Code was the subject of a petition of lawyer Jesus Falcis III before the Supreme Court in 2015, which was ultimately decided on by magistrates in 2019.

The SC unanimously struck down the petition due to procedural grounds, namely "lack of standing, violating the principle of hierarchy of courts, and failing to raise an actual, justiciable controversy.”

READ: Why the SC junked Falcis' plea for same-sex marriage

While the SC rejected the petition, it stressed that the Court “[understands] the desire of same-sex couples to seek, not moral judgment based on discrimination from any of our laws, but rather, a balanced recognition of their true, authentic, and responsive choices.”

It however noted that the petition at hand did not present “the clearest actual factual backdrop to make reasoned judgment our Constitution requires.”

In deciding on the case, the SC through Associate Justice Marvic Leonen said the issue on whether same-sex marriage should be legalized in the country is better left to Congress.

What are the pertinent details of the civil union bills?

Under Herrera-Dy’s proposal, civil partnerships can be between a couple of the same sex or the opposit sex, provided that they are at least 18 years old, not prohibited to enter into a civil partnehrship by reason of public policy and are free from any existing bond of marriage or civil partnership.

She also wants those between 18 and 21 years old to obtain consent from their parents or legal guardians.

Meanwhile, Padilla’s proposal solely focuses on same-sex couples who wish to enter into a civil union. His bill provides the same requirements that couples should have under the Herrera-Dy measure.

Both bills require that the two people entering a civil union or partnership give their free consent, obtain a document from the local civil registrar or consular office authorizing them to enter into the arrangement, and personally appear for the signing of the contract before either a notary public (in the Herrera-Dy bill) or an administering officer (in the Padilla bill) with at least two witnesses present.

Both measures state that couples in civil unions or partnerships get “all benefits and protections as are granted to spouses in a marriage under existing laws, administrative orders, court rulings, or those derived as a matter of public policy, or any other source of civil law.”

These include legal separation, adoption, child custody and support, property division and maintenance, spousal support, intestate succession, insurance, health and pension benefits, labor standard benefits, tax perks, hospital and detention visitation rights, and decision in making burial arrangements.

Both bills also bar discriminatory employment practices against civil union or partnership couples.

Punishment for discrimination under Herrera-Dy’s bill ranges from a P100,000 to P500,000 fine or jail time of one year to six years or both, while Padilla’s bill imposes a stiffer fine of P500,000 to P1 million or jail time of 10 years.

Padilla and Herrera-Dy’s measures also provide an option for couples to execute an agreement that would govern their property relations prior to their entering a civil union or partnership. 

The two bills, however, differ on the default property regime should there be no pre-civil union or partnership agreement or when it is voided. Padilla’s bill provides that the default is conjugal partnership of gains, while Herrera Dy’s bill provides that it is total separation of property.

Both bills also impose an obligation on couples in civil unions or partnerships to “owe each other respect, fidelity, support and assistance” and “are bound to live together and are jointly responsible in the management of their household; exercise of parental authority, if applicable; the contribution towards expenses; the maintenance of [their] residence; and other duties which married couples are jointly responsible for.”

So what’s next for the civil union bills?

For now, it is a waiting game for these measures. 

Senate President Migz Zubiri and House Speaker Martin Romualdez have so far remained mum on the bills and have not indicated whether they will include these in their respective chamber’s legislative priorities.

Senate Majority Leader Joel Villanueva, a conservative who was among the lawmakers who blocked the passage of an anti-discrimination bill popularly known as the SOGIE Equality Bill, said that he can agree to support civil unions as long as they do not become equated with marriage.

“I still believe that marriage is exclusively between a man and a woman,” Villanueva said in a text message, noting that the civil union bill needs support and scrutiny from all sectors, especially the religious communities.

For Sen. Risa Hontiveros, who chairs the women and gender panel that Padilla’s bill was referred to, the “first order of the day” is still the passage of the SOGIE Equality Bill.

“This is the first and most important fight that we need to win to ensure the equal view and treatment of our LGBTQIA+ countrymen,” Hontiveros said in Filipino in a statement.

EXPLAINER

HOUSE OF REPRESENTATIVES

LGBTQIA+

ROBINHOOD PADILLA

SENATE

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