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Lawsuit seeks to overturn Pa.'s ban on same-sex marriage

| Tuesday, July 9, 2013, 12:48 p.m.
Brad Bumsted
The American Civil Liberties Union on Tuesday July 9, 2013, filed the first known legal challenge seeking to overturn the Pennsylvania law that effectively bans same-sex marriage. “The couples in this lawsuit are united by love, family and commitment, which are the cornerstones of marriage,” said Witold Walczak, legal director for the ACLU of Pennsylvania.”They are married in every sense of the word except one — under Pennsylvania law.”

HARRISBURG — On the heels of two U.S. Supreme Court decisions supportive of gay rights, the American Civil Liberties Union and a Philadelphia law firm on Tuesday filed a lawsuit against the state of Pennsylvania with the intent to overturn its ban on same-sex marriages.

The ACLU said it filed the first-known legal challenge seeking to overturn a state law effectively banning same-sex marriages. The 1996 law signed by former Republican Gov. Tom Ridge defines marriage as a union between one man and one woman. It says same-sex marriages from other states will be “void in this Commonwealth.”

The lawsuit asks a federal judge to prevent state officials from stopping gays and lesbians from marrying. It names Gov. Tom Corbett, Attorney General Kathleen Kane and three other officials. Spokesmen for Corbett and Kane said it's under review.

Pennsylvania is one of 35 states that prohibits same-sex marriages, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures in Denver. Thirteen states, including all in the Northeast except Pennsylvania, allow same-sex marriages. Four states allow same-sex civil unions.

“As the cradle of liberty, it is shameful that Pennsylvania denies some families the dignity and respect that can only come with marriage,” said Reggie Shuford, executive director of the ACLU of Pennsylvania, which filed the suit with the national ACLU and Hangley Aronchick Segal Pudlin & Schiller, a Philadelphia law firm working on pro bono basis.

Rep. Matthew Baker, R-Tioga County, who voted for the bill 17 years ago, views it as an attempt to have the courts set state policy.

“The sanctity of marriage should be preserved, and my constituents strongly support my position in upholding this ideal because children benefit from having both mother and dad,” Baker said. “I would even support a constitutional amendment to enshrine this basic and fundamental principle that has strong faith-based, moral and ethical implications.”

Last month, the Supreme Court ruled that same-sex marriages could not be a reason to deny federal benefits. The court held that a section of the Defense of Marriage Act was unconstitutional under the due process clause of the Fifth Amendment. Another ruling let stand a lower court decision allowing same-sex marriages in California to proceed.

“The Supreme Court's decision dealt only with the federal government's recognition of gay marriage,” said Wes Oliver, a Duquesne University law school professor. The lawsuit in Pennsylvania is the “next step in the battle,” Oliver said.

Michael Geer, president of the Pennsylvania Family Institute, said the court determined “it's up to states to determine the definition of marriage.”

ACLU lawyers cited the victory on federal recognition during a Capitol news conference with gay and lesbian plaintiffs to announce the lawsuit.

Dawn Plummer and Diana Polson of Point Breeze, together for 13 years, have two children. They made a commitment before family and friends in 2007, but they don't feel it's enough. They want to be legally married in Pennsylvania to gain the respect other couples enjoy.

“Every time we have to check the ‘single' box on a form, it feels like a slap in the face,” said Dawn, 36.

The suit filed in U.S. Middle District Court in Harrisburg contends Pennsylvania's refusal to marry lesbian and gay couples, or recognize their out-of-state marriages, violates their fundamental right to marry and their rights under the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.

Former Republican state Rep. Jeffrey Coleman, a political consultant for conservative candidates, said the “ACLU is circumventing the legislative process, saying we should end the debate” and toss the issue to the courts.

“I think it is an overreach, a mistake,” said Coleman, who represented portions of Armstrong and Indiana counties in the state House from 2001 to 2004.

The Legislature has “defined marriage in Pennsylvania,” said Geer of the Pennsylvania Family Institute. “For the ACLU to ask an unelected judge to redefine marriage for Pennsylvania, we find disappointing and troubling.”

Rep. Dan Frankel, D-Squirrel Hill, an advocate for gay and lesbian rights, disagreed that the Legislature is the best body to handle the matter.

“I'd like to believe we could return to session and vote on a bill to protect Pennsylvanians from non-discrimination and a bill promoting marriage equality before the end of the year,” Frankel said. “But the Pennsylvania Legislature seems to lag behind the public — not by years, but by decades — so, unfortunately, this court case may be the quickest way to full equality for our (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) residents.”

The Associated Press contributed. Brad Bumsted is Trib Total Media's state Capitol reporter. Reach him at 717-787-1405 or

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