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Corbett administration sues Montgomery County official to stop same-sex marriages

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Tuesday, July 30, 2013, 1:54 p.m.

HARRISBURG — The Corbett administration on Tuesday sued in Commonwealth Court to stop the Montgomery County register of wills from issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples.

Since mid-July, when Attorney General Kathleen Kane called the state's law banning gay marriage unconstitutional, Register of Wills D. Bruce Hanes has issued 34 licenses to gay couples. His deputy, Joan Nagle, said he would not comment on the lawsuit, on the advice of counsel.

Hanes has said he wanted to come down “on the right side of history and the law.”

The lawsuit seeks a court order to halt Hanes' office from issuing the licenses because he is defying a Pennsylvania law that states “marriage shall be between one man and one woman,” said lawyers for the Department of Health under Gov. Tom Corbett's jurisdiction. Pennsylvania is the only Northeastern state without same-sex marriages or civil unions.

That won't stop Jared Pascoe and his fiancé from trying to get a license from Hanes next week and returning to Pittsburgh for a ceremony, Pascoe said. “I'm hopeful,” he said.

Pascoe, a Pittsburgh talent agent, said he is aware the state may try to declare it illegal. “Even if it is a limited edition marriage license, it'll be really cool to get our names on a Pennsylvania document,” Pascoe said.

Corbett's general counsel, James D. Schultz, said Kane's stance caused “chaos and uncertainty,” as evidenced by the gay marriages in the county outside Philadelphia since her July 11 statement.

Kane spokesman Joe Peters said the Health Department and the Office of General Counsel initiated the suit and “assumed jurisdiction.” As a result, Kane's office would not comment, he said.

Gary Van Horn, president of Delta Foundation of Pittsburgh, the leading advocacy group for gays, lesbians, bisexuals and transgender people in Western Pennsylvania, said the lawsuit “is another instance showing Corbett is out of touch.”

But Michael Geer, president of the Pennsylvania Family Institute, said the lawsuit shows “Tom Corbett is doing the right thing” in standing up for a law passed with overwhelming support in the General Assembly 17 years ago. It remains law until the Legislature or a court overturns it, Geer said.

Kane, a Democrat, said she will not defend Pennsylvania in a separate lawsuit brought by the American Civil Liberties Union and others that challenges the 1996 state law banning gay marriage. She delegated that case to Schultz's office.

His office will defend the statute, which names the governor and Health Secretary Michael Wolf as defendants, Schultz said. The office would do so regardless, he said in a letter to Kane's chief of staff, Adrian King.

The “attorney general's unprecedented public adjudication of the statute's alleged unconstitutionality was an improper usurpation of the role of the courts, which at a minimum causes confusion among those charged with administering the law and places any lawyer defending the case at a disadvantage from the outset,” Schultz said in his response to Kane.

King told Schultz in an earlier letter that Kane has a “sacred obligation” to uphold the constitutions of the United States and the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania but concluded the state's law isn't enforceable because it “violates the due process and equal protection provisions” of those constitutions.

Kane made her decision after reviewing the law, King said.

“Politics and personal belief were not taken into account,” he said.

Brad Bumsted is Trib Total Media's state Capitol writer. Reach him at 717-787-1405 or

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