Pa. officials split on same-sex unions

| Saturday, Aug. 17, 2013, 7:07 p.m.

Pennsylvania authorities are heading in different and sometimes conflicting directions over the state's ban on same-sex marriage, resulting in lawsuits in state and federal courts and legal experts disagreeing as to whether judges or economic factors will produce change.

Duquesne University law professor Bruce Ledewitz said legalization of same-sex marriage won't come through court rulings, but from a groundswell of corporations worried about losing employees to other states where their unions are recognized.

“I don't think the Supreme Court will find any of the state bans on gay marriage unconstitutional,” said Ledewitz. “I think they will uphold the bans on gay marriage. The change in Pennsylvania will come from pressure from large employers. It's a much greater economic disadvantage than people realize.”

Attorney General Kathleen Kane has refused to defend a federal lawsuit challenging the state ban on same-sex marriages, saying she believes the ban to be unconstitutional.

Ten Pennsylvania couples filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court Harrisburg on July 9 seeking to overturn the ban. Named as a defendant was Washington County Register of Wills Mary Jo Poknis, who refused to issue a marriage license to a Bridgeville couple, Deb and Susan Whitewood, on June 24.

The Registers of Wills and Clerks of Orphans' Court Association last month approved a resolution saying their members would not issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples.

Yet Montgomery County Register of Wills D. Bruce Hanes had issued 135 marriage licenses to same-sex couples by Friday afternoon.

The state Department of Health sued Hanes on July 30, maintaining that he has to follow state law that defines marriage as between a man and a woman.

Ruth Heller, 44, and Beth Bowles, 55, both of Perry, Westmoreland County, have been a couple for nearly 20 years. They were married in New York state on Oct. 15, 2011.

“But when we crossed the state line (into Pennsylvania), we were considered strangers, and that's not right,” said Heller, a veterinarian.

She and Bowles attended a rally in Market Square on Saturday, organized by the group Marriage Equality for PA, in support of marriage equality in Pennsylvania.

“I need the protection of being able to say that (Bowles, who is disabled) is my wife. I want her to get my stuff,” Heller said.

Westmoreland County Register of Wills Mike Ginsburg said he can sympathize with the plight of gay couples, but he has to follow the law.

“They are human beings. Something should be put into the law for these unions,” Ginsburg said. “You just can't redefine marriage because you find it convenient.”

The equality group honored Braddock Mayor John Fetterman, who has performed five same-sex marriage ceremonies and expects to perform a sixth either on Sunday or Monday.

Ledewitz said the marriage licenses issued by Hanes have no legal validity.

“They're just for fun,” he said.

Fetterman said the licenses have meaning to the couples and their families.

“They're being recognized by the majority of citizens in this state that support marriage equality,” the mayor said.

On Friday, the Pennsylvania chapter of the conservative group Americans for Christian Traditions in Our Nation called for Hanes' and Kane's resignations or impeachments. The group focuses on electing conservatives to public office.

“We, the people of our commonwealth, want those whom we elect to office to uphold our laws,” Executive Director Gwenne Alexander said in a statement. “To act outside of their authority is cause for immediate action.”

Butler County Register of Wills Judy Moser's office said Friday that her office had not received any inquiries from same-sex couples for licenses.

Allegheny County said there have been several inquiries about the licenses, but no one has tried to apply.

Attorney Kurt Mulzet of Pittsburgh said he's “skeptical there's going to be much traction for statutory change. I think it will have to come from the court. We'll be slow to get there unless the courts tell them they have to.”

Bill Vidonic is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-380-5621 or

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