The gay partner of a deceased Catholic priest has been told he is allowed to have his lover’s pension, despite the cleric’s vow of chastity.

The Constitutional Court of Colombia found in favor of the partner, who lived with the priest for 28 years before his death in 2009, in  landmark ruling, unprecedented in the history of Colombia and possibly Latin America.

The ruling ordering the Colombian Institute of Social Security (ISS) to award pension rights is particularly significant given that the majority of the country still identifies as Catholic. Up to 95% of Colombians are Christian and of those 80% to 90% are Catholic.

The Catholic Church was not directly involved in the case. And church officials refused a request by the BBC to comment on it.

The Constitutional Court dismissed the rulings of the first and second instances judges which accepted the argument of the ISS that the deceased was a sworn Catholic priest who took a vow of chastity and therefore benefits should be denied, as he broke this vow.

Instead the court ruled that for all legal intent and purposes, same-sex couples constitute a family. It also stated that Colombia is a secular state and civil servants (including the ISS and judges) must exercise the principle of ‘religious neutrality’ in their judgments.

It is understood that the ruling would have applied equally regardless of whether the priest’s partner had been male or female.

Judges heard testimony of mutual friends and a document issued by the priest, known by his pseudonym ‘Pedro’, which he wrote in final weeks of his life, stating that ‘Juan’ (another pseudonym) was a ‘permanent partner of several years.’

Juan is unemployed, elderly man and was left with no resources and had to survive until now on the charity of neighbors and friends living in a run-down apartment.

While a civil partnership bill introduced by President Álvaro Uribe was defeated in 2007 in the Colombian Congress, the court has repeatedly ruled and intervened in favour of LGBT rights for same-sex couples.

Between February 2007 and April 2008 three rulings of the Constitutional Court granted registered same-sex couples the same pension, social security and property rights as for registered heterosexual couples. But this is the first time a court has granted pension rights to same-sex couple consisting of a priest and a lay person.

In July 2011, the Constitutional Court ruled in a historic decision that same-sex couples can constitute a family in Colombia. And it ordered the Colombian Congress to legislate regarding marriage for gay couples by 20 June 2013, or else couples would automatically gain the right to go to any judge or notary public to formalize their union.

Meanwhile, last month (24 April) the Constitutional Court began diliberations on whether to grant same-sex couples adoption rights, with a ruling expected soon.

According to a report in the Washington Post, while the capital Bogota has a thriving LGBT community with extensive resources, ‘violence against gays is not uncommon and discrimination remains a recurring problem.’

In addition, Elizabeth Castillo, a lawyer and LGBT rights advocate stated: ‘Even with the new [same-sex couples] law, many partners in gay relationships would probably be denied health and other benefits… It’s possible things won’t change for some people,’ highlighting the problem of enforcing such laws in a country where homophobic violence is well documented and a recurring problem.