QuestionHow will the SCOTUS marriage equality ruling affect Puerto Rico, Guam and other US territories?
Hopes&Fears answers questions with the help of experts. Now, congress representatives and marriage equality activists explain how the SCOTUS ruling will affect US territories outside of the 50 states.
Following the landmark Supreme Court ruling last week officially granting marriage rights to same sex couples in all 50 states, we wondered, what about the territories? The United States has in total sixteen territories, five are which are permanently inhabited. These include Puerto Rico, Guam, American Samoa, The US Virgin Islands, and the Northern Mariana Islands.
Puerto Rico's debt crisis has recently been in the spotlight. Concerns about rights for territory citizens are reemerging in the media. As it stands, Puerto Ricans, along with residents of the US Virgin Islands, Guam, and the Northern Marianas are American citizens who cannot vote, but still live under the same federal government as the 50 states. Residents of American Samoa are US nationals, not citizens. We asked experts from government offices and marriage equality advocacy groups how the recent SCOTUS decision will play out in the five inhabited territories, and how political and cultural nuances will enter the equation.
IT Director, Communications Team for Marriage Equality USA
What the Supreme Court issued on June 26 was their opinion. The Court has a short period after they issue an opinion to issue a judgment, and the judgment is the actual legal order that can be enforced.
What that means is anybody who isn’t aligned with the opinion (once that becomes a judgment) or anybody who is not complying can then be challenged through the court legally.
As far as the territories are concerned, the opinion (and the judgment, when it is issued) applies to all of the U.S. territories except for American Samoa. We don’t yet know how this going to play out in American Samoa because they are nationals rather than citizens.
US Virgin Islands
Northern Mariana Islands
Press Secretary for Congresswoman Stacey Plaskett, US Virgin Islands
The process pretty much works the same as any local municipality in the United States where anyone interested in marriage would have to first go to the court and apply for a marriage license. Currently, the law in the Virgin Islands defines marriage between one man and one woman and, of course, we know that the Supreme Court ruling came out last week that effectively banned the statewide stance on same sex marriage.
At this point, we understand that that ruling does affect the US territories and the Virgin Islands. Puerto Rico has already done what they’re supposed to do in order to change their laws to comply with the Supreme Court's ruling. According to a press conference, the Governor of the Virgin Islands Kenneth Matt is issuing an executive order for the law of the Virgin Islands to be changed to comply as well. To my knowledge, the process would be the same but I am not quite sure how it would play it out in American Samoa because their dynamic is a little bit different than that of the other territories as citizenship isn’t a birthright to people born there.
I think, there’s a lack of understanding between all the parties involved, and when I say parties I mean the local legislature there in the Virgin Islands and the executive branch, or the governor. The president of the local legislature is saying that he doesn't necessarily support it, while the governor has issued this executive order. There is a back and forth debate whether the governor has the authority to use an executive order to basically rewrite a law into the Virgin Islands code.
Year of integration into the US
US Virgin Islands*
Northern Mariana Islands
*Full U.S. citizenship to all residents born in the U.S. Virgin Islands was extended in 1932 by an act of Congress, and a 1936 act accorded a greater measure of self-government, although the islands would not have an elected governor until 1970.
Staff attorney, LAMBDA Legal NYC
The way it works is of the five territories is that only four of the territories - Puerto Rico, US Virgin Islands, Northern Mariana Islands and Guam - have had U.S. citizenship extended to them at different points in time, throughout the last 50 or so years. This has mostly been done through what’s been called Organic Acts, like congress, and those laws create a form of self government for the territories. They grant U.S. citizenship for any person born in those territories, and then also extend particular constitutional protections from the 14th amendment and fundamental rights, and so forth.
When it comes to American Samoa, which is another unincorporated territory, that hasn't occurred yet, so the population in American Samoa is not considered U.S. citizens but rather U.S. nationals, so that is an unfortunate situation. It’s not as automatic as it is in the other territories. In fact all of the four other territories have already announced that they will be complying with the decision from Friday.
Guam has already had marriage equality as of June 9, before the Supreme Court decided on a lawsuit that was brought by attorneys that we assisted.
The citizenship clause decision was realized on June 5, three weeks just before the Supreme Court decision. The court of appeals for the District of Columbia decided that people born in American Samoa are U.S. nationals and are not entitled to being US citizens, and that is a question that needs to be resolved by people of the territory and congress.
Cultural acceptance of gender variance that exists on American Samoa is actually something that is quite fortunate. Something we want to strive for in the rest of the United States is acceptance of gender nonconformity. I don’t know how that will play out specifically with regards to the issue of marriage equality in American Samoa, but I think it portends well with a tolerance and acceptance of different identities and the variety of identities that we all exhibit in society.
Our hope and desire, by any legal means, is that there’s no same sex couples within any jurisdiction of the United States that should not enjoy the right to marry, and that includes not only the States but every single territory whether they have an organic act or not, incorporated or not.
— "homosexual acts" have been legal in American Samoa since 1980, but joint-adoption acceptance and anti-discrimination protection in the workplace for same sex couples have still not been enacted.
-- Samoa has a traditional acceptance of M-T-F transgender people. There is a third gender in Samoan culture called fa’afafine, who are boys brought up as girls. This concept of feminization is not in line with Western views of homosexuality, and exists in several Polynesian nations.
Madeline Z. Bordallo
Congresswoman, Delegate from Guam to the US House of Representatives
The Supreme Court ruled that the Constitution guarantees all Americans the right to marry the person they love, regardless of their sexual orientation. This is a positive step forward for the LGBT community, and it affirms the steps that we have taken in Guam to allow same sex couples to marry. This ruling will not change the protections given to religious organizations to conduct marriages in accordance with their religious beliefs, but it will ensure that LGBT couples are treated equally under the law. However ,despite the Supreme Court’s ruling in favor of marriage equality, there is much work that remains to ensure that all members of our community are treated with dignity and respect. This is an important day in our country’s history, and I hope that all members of our community will come together to promote equality and justice for all Americans.
ILLUSTRATION: Serge Rodionov
ADDITIONAL SOURCES: State.gov, Everything Everywhere, Doi.gov, InfoPlease, Puerto Rico Report, World Bank