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Federal judge tosses out Pennsylvania's ban on same-sex marriage

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By Adam Smeltz and Bobby Kerlik
Tuesday, May 20, 2014, 1:27 p.m.
 

Same-sex couples across Pennsylvania could begin tying the knot on Friday or Saturday under a landmark federal court decision in Harrisburg that had some people celebrating and others crying foul.

An order on Tuesday by U.S. District Judge John E. Jones III overturned the state's 1996 Defense of Marriage Act, positioning Pennsylvania to become the 19th state in which same-sex couples can marry legally. Jones declared the 1996 act a discriminatory violation of the Constitution that belongs in “the ash heap of history.”

“We now join the 12 federal district courts across the country which, when confronted with these inequities in their own states, have concluded that all couples deserve equal dignity in the realm of civil marriage,” Jones wrote in a 39-page opinion.

Eleven couples — including three from Bridgeville, Crafton Heights and Point Breeze — and the American Civil Liberties Union challenged Gov. Tom Corbett in July to void the ban. The couples said the law deprived them of tax and legal benefits that straight couples enjoy.

Bridgeville couple Deborah and Susan Whitewood said the ruling was a validation.

They began their same-sex union in 1993 at a church, then married legally last year in Maryland. They were among the plaintiffs who sued the Corbett administration.

“We had to work twice as hard to give our family the protection that comes to straight couples when they're married,” said Deborah Whitewood, 45. The couple has three children.

The discrepancy became vivid when Susan Whitewood, 50, went to a hospital emergency room. Deborah made sure she had power of attorney and wasn't sure whether the hospital would allow her to visit.

“That shouldn't have been the first thought in my mind when I was going to the hospital to see my spouse,” she said. “It should have been ‘How's my spouse doing?' — not ‘Where's my paperwork?' ”

Corbett's administration defended limiting marriage to one man and one woman but did not say whether he would appeal. General counsel James Schultz was reviewing the decision on Tuesday, and the governor's office expected to make an announcement on Wednesday, a spokesman said.

That uncertainty didn't mute disappointment among social conservatives or celebration among gay rights supporters. More than 400 supporters gathered for an evening rally in Shadyside. Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto, Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald, Sen. Bob Casey Jr. and Attorney General Kathleen Kane applauded the ruling in statements.

“I saw it while I was at work, and I broke out crying,” said Coty Ivory, 21, of Squirrel Hill at the rally. Others danced to music and cheered speakers.

“It's a big celebration day. We've been waiting for years for this,” said Donna Prata, 56, of Brookline, with partner Belinda Hall. “It means I can finally marry the person I've been with for 23 years.”

Criticism was quick from the Pennsylvania Pastors Network, Pennsylvania Family Institute and Diocese of Pittsburgh Bishop David Zubik, who called the traditional definition of marriage “true to the human condition.”

“Its nature is to provide strong families in which children are brought into the world to be nurtured by both a father and a mother. Same-sex civil marriage tampers with this design because any children are innately deprived of a mother or a father,” Zubik said in a statement.

Other critics cast Jones as an activist judge, some arguing the marriage question is best left to voters as a ballot referendum item.

“We're not going to stand by silently while an activist judge tries to strike down an institution that has been preserved throughout history,” said state Rep. Daryl Metcalfe, R-Cranberry. He introduced an earlier impeachment resolution against Kane, who refused to defend the marriage law.

About 49.5 percent of Pennsylvanians in a recent survey supported state legislation to allow same-sex marriage, according to Robert Morris University poll data. About 40.7 percent were opposed.

Unless Jones issues a stay to delay his order, it appears that county offices can begin issuing same-sex marriage licenses this week, said Anthony C. Infanti, a University of Pittsburgh law professor. He said the order requires the state to recognize same-sex marriages licensed in other states. County offices in Philadelphia stayed open late to handle marriage applications.

The change should make it easier and cheaper for same-sex couples to work through inheritance taxes, real estate transfer fees and dozens of other government processes that differ for married people, Infanti said. Courts have struck down state bans on gay marriage eight times since the Supreme Court reversed parts of the federal Defense of Marriage Act in June.

Allegheny County allowed same-sex couples to start applying for marriage licenses online on Tuesday, when county offices were closed for primary elections. The county Marriage License Bureau will accept same-sex applicants in person beginning Wednesday, though state law requires a three-day waiting period before applicants can marry.

In Westmoreland County, Register of Wills Michael Ginsburg said his Greensburg office could begin accepting same-sex marriage applications on Wednesday morning, once he receives notification from the state and clearance from county judges.

Residents started making inquiries right after Jones issued his order.

“I've gotten a half-dozen phone calls in the first hour,” Ginsburg said.

Adam Smeltz and Bobby Kerlik are staff writers for Trib Total Media. Staff writers Bill Vidonic and Rich Cholodofsky contributed.

 

 
 


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