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Corbett, other Pa. officials seek release from gay-marriage lawsuit

| Tuesday, Oct. 8, 2013, 9:36 p.m.

HARRISBURG — Pennsylvania's governor, its chief legal officer and its health secretary are asking to be released as defendants in a federal lawsuit seeking to overturn the state's gay-marriage ban.

In papers filed on Monday in U.S. District Court in Harrisburg, Gov. Tom Corbett's legal team argued that the U.S. Constitution provides state officials immunity from being sued in federal court without their consent. The governor's lawyers contend that Corbett and Health Secretary Michael Wolf should be dismissed as defendants because of a 1972 Supreme Court ruling that says federal courts lack jurisdiction over state marriage laws.

In a separate filing, lawyers for state Attorney General Kathleen Kane argued that she should not be a defendant because she is not enforcing the law.

In addition to Corbett, Kane and Wolf, two county officials are named in the lawsuit.

Lawyers in the case are scheduled to meet on Wednesday with Judge John E. Jones III to discuss scheduling matters, including the timing of a trial.

Witold Walczak, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania, which is helping represent the plaintiffs, said on Tuesday the latest defense motions amount to “nibbling around the edges” of issues crucial to gay couples in the state.

“We expect that the issue of whether our clients' love and commitment deserves equal respect under the law will get to trial,” he said.

The federal lawsuit, filed in July on behalf of 23 men, women and children seeking to overturn the law, was the first in a growing number of legal challenges. At issue is a 1996 amendment to Pennsylvania's marriage law that defines marriage as a civil contract between “one man and one woman.”

Thirteen states and the District of Columbia, representing about 30 percent of the population, have legalized gay marriages. Every other state in the Northeast allows same-sex marriage except New Jersey, which allows civil unions.

Kane, a Democrat who took office in January, has said she believes the gay-marriage ban violates the state and federal constitutions, and she refused to defend it in court. Lawyers in the Attorney General's Office are representing Kane in the federal case.

The Republican governor's Office of General Counsel has hired a private legal team, headed by former state Supreme Court Justice William Lamb, who is being paid $400 an hour for his services.

The federal case is separate from a proceeding in Commonwealth Court in which the Department of Health is trying to stop a court clerk in Montgomery County from issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples.

Corbett has been criticized in recent days for comparing gay marriage to marriage between siblings.

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