Costa Rica flagConservative Costa Rican lawmakers are horrified after accidentally passing legislation last week possibly approving same-sex civil unions.

Language in a bill on marriage and social services for young people called the “Law of Young People” grants the right to legally recognised partnerships “without discrimination contrary to human dignity”, effectively opening the door to civil partnerships for same-sex couples.

Anti-gay politicians who voted for the bill were unaware of the implications of the wording until after the vote. While the original bill specified its application to heterosexual unions, the change was made by social democratic politician José María Villalta from the Broad Front party.

“During the discussion in the first debate, we explained that the Law of Young People should be interpreted with this sense of opening to gays and no one objected,” said Villalta.

Once conservatives realised what they had done, they immediately called on Costa Rican President Laura Chinchilla from the socialist National Liberation Party to veto the bill. Although she has publicly stated her opposition to marriage equality for Costa Rica, Chinchilla refused to exercise her veto, and signed the bill into law last Friday.

In response, conservative lawmaker Justo Orozco from the Christian Costa Rican Renovation Party has said he will launch a legal challenge to the bill, on the grounds that its age-specific benefits are “discriminatory”. The Law of Young People bill only applies to people aged 12 to 35.

Same-sex couples who meet the three year co-habitation requirements for common law marriage in Costa Rica and are covered by the new law have already begun applying for legal recognition this week.

It is unclear at this stage whether the couples will be successful, due to the bill’s vague language and the likely outcome of a challenge to unions recognised under the new law. There is even a possibility anti-gay politicians will push for a new bill to specifically limit common law marriages to heterosexual couples.

If successful, advocates hope common law marriages recognised under the Law of Young People will set a judicial precedent for extending rights to same-sex partners including inheritance claims, social security benefits and hospital visitation rights.

The events have breathed new life into Costa Rica’s marriage equality campaign, with activists calling the new law a significant step towards full legal marriage for same-sex couples.

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