The controversy over the Puerto Rico House of Representatives decree for a fast, explained

by | Mar 17, 2017 | Puerto Rico | Comments

What is the decree?

Puerto Rico has been facing severe economic difficulties and Puerto Ricans are feeling the burden. In a somewhat unprecedented move, the President of Puerto Rico’s House of Representatives, Carlos Johnny Mendez, called for 40 days of fasting and prayer. The purpose of the fast is the “spiritual, material and social purification” of Puerto Rico to aid in their deliverance from the economic crisis. The decree passed in late February creates 40 days of fasting in all 40 of Puerto Rico’s districts, with prayer services scheduled everyday.

Controversy

Of course this decree was met by a considerable amount of controversy. Puerto Rico has a constitutional separation of church and state, which many believe is violated by the decree. Rights groups across the islands and the US believe the decree to be in violation of constitutional law, under which the state should not officially support any religion. According to Puerto Rican law, the government cannot prohibit the practice of any religion, nor can it allocate public funds for the establishment of any religion.

Several groups have taken legal action against the decree. In late February the Secular Humanists of Puerto Rico (Humanistas Seculares de Puerto Rico) filed a provisional request to the Superior Court in an attempt to stop the decree. They believe that it is contrary to the constitution, and therefore illegal. Their request was denied by Superior Court Judge Ángel Pagán. He instead invited both parties to a public hearing on March Third to discuss the issue. According to the Twitter account of the Secular Humanists, the hearing never happened. Instead they organized a protest of the decree on the third of March. Their claim was transferred to the federal level where they are receiving support from the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).

The ACLU is attempting to block the decree by asking for a temporary federal restraining order. Part of the controversy that the ACLU and other rights groups are seeking to address is whether or not the government is using public funds to support the decree. If so, the government is breaking the constitution, however, it is currently unclear whether or not the government has used public funds. That said, the House of Representative’s social media accounts have been promoting the fast with special flyers, and the production and sharing of these was likely done by public employees during work hours, constituting an expenditure of public funds.

Support for the fast

Less is being publicized about support for the decree, but it is clear that some support exists. First of all, it got enough support in the House of Representatives to be passed, meaning that it has the support of many of the islands’ politicians. Beyond solely political support, it has been reported that Puerto Ricans have been going to the voluntary church services that are held across the island every day from 5-6 a.m. in observation of the decree.