Top lawmaker pushes for same-sex unions, divorce in Catholic Philippines

President Rodrigo Duterte delivers his State of the Nation Address as Senate President Aquilino Pimentel (left) and House of Representatives Speaker Pantaleon Alvarez look on.
President Rodrigo Duterte delivers his State of the Nation Address as Senate President Aquilino Pimentel (left) and House of Representatives Speaker Pantaleon Alvarez look on.PHOTO: EPA

MANILA (REUTERS) - Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte's top ally in Congress proposed new bills to legalise divorce and same-sex unions on Monday (July 24), a move almost certain to meet fierce resistance from bishops in the mainly Catholic country.

Opening the lower house for its second regular session, Speaker Pantaleon Alvarez said he would file a bill to legally recognise civil partnerships between people of the same sex.

The Philippines would become the first South-east Asian nation to legalise same-sex unions if he succeeds.

Mr Alvarez said citizens should be allowed to divorce legally as much as same-sex couples should be allowed to have legally recognised unions.

Get The Straits Times
newsletters in your inbox

"We must also be considerate of the fact that marriage may not be for everyone," he said. "Presently, it even excludes certain groups of people from its fold. Our citizens should not be excluded from society just because of the person they love. They must also be treated with equality before the law."

Twenty-seven countries, mostly in Western Europe and the Americas, have already recognised same-sex unions.

A court in Taiwan issued a ruling in May that said same-sex couples had the right to marry legally.

The Vatican and the Philippines are the only states in which divorce is outlawed.

The proposals by Mr Alvarez drew mixed reactions from lawmakers, both allies and the opposition.

The Philippine bishops would most likely try to block moves to legalise divorce and same-sex marriages, although Catholic Church representatives were not immediately available for comment.

Congressman Teodoro Baguilat described the proposal as "bold, clear and progressive", but representative Tom Villarina said Congress should focus on passing an anti-discrimination bill put forward by the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community because that proposal already had broad support.

In the most recent opinion polls, Filipinos overwhelmingly rejected same-sex marriages, with the latest survey in 2015 showing nearly 70 per cent of 1,200 respondents strongly disagreed.

Laws on same-sex marriages have been proposed as far back as 2006, but none has gained traction.

However, the latest attempt could gain momentum because it has the endorsement of Mr Alvarez, a close ally of Mr Duterte, who enjoys a super-majority in the legislature.

Mr Alvarez said divorce would strengthen the rights of minors because there would be fewer illegitimate children under the law.

Divorces, he said, would be a far less tedious and expensive process than annulling marriages, which can take years and face many legal hurdles.

"They (would) no longer have to sling mud at each other in front of a judge just to convince the magistrate that their marriage should be declared void," he said.