Take the case of Colombia. In 2011, the Constitutional Court ruled that same-sex couples must be considered a "family" under the law. It ordered the congress to pass a law equalizing the rights of same-sex couples within two years. As a backstop against congressional inaction, the ruling also said that notaries and judges could automatically begin solemnizing same-sex unions by June 20, 2013, with or without Congress's blessing.
This ruling was not perfect in the eyes of Colombian LGBT advocates -- the court stopped short of saying these protections must be called "marriage," leaving that up to the legislature to decide. But it spelled out that fundamental legal protections are at stake and put momentum on the side of marriage advocates.
Colombian law demands this level of protection be extended to same-sex couples, the court wrote in its decision, to protect gays and lesbians' fundamental rights "to personal development, autonomy and self-determination, [and] equality."
The ruling came despite strong pressure from the Catholic Church, which is continuing to lobby against same-sex marriage in the Colombian congress. A bill to legalize same-sex marriage cleared a preliminary vote in the Senate in December, but even the bill's sponsor, Senator Armando Benedetti, is pessimistic about its chances in the house of representatives.
"In the House we confront a problem," Benedetti told me in a November interview in his Bogotá office. "That is the [influence of] the Catholic religion, which always puts its principles above the rights of minorities."
That's why the court is so important, he continued, expressing confidence that the court would clarify its support for same-sex marriages once they begin being performed in June of 2013. "The Constitutional Court, if we're going to speak very seriously, has always been in favor of the disadvantaged, of minorities, of the poor," said Benedetti.
Latin America's marriage movement has been helped by the fact that most countries' courts take international jurisprudence far more seriously than do courts in the United States. Human rights law takes an especially international perspective, since almost every country in Latin America is under the jurisdiction of two human rights bodies within the Organization of American States, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, charged with investigating violations of the American Convention on Human Rights, and the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, which adjudicates violations on the recommendation of the Commission. Though the United States, Canada, and a handful of Caribbean nations do not recognize the court's jurisdiction, most of Latin America does.