Federal judge overturns Pa. gay marriage ban

Last updated: May 21. 2014 12:43AM - 3010 Views
By James O’Malley Times Leader Correspondent

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Highlights of ruling

• Overturns the state’s 1996 ban on same-sex marriage.

• Orders Pa. to recognize same-sex marriages performed outside the state.

• Affords married same-sex couples all legal protections and tax benefits of marriage.

• Makes Pennsylvania the 19th state to legalize same-sex marriage and the last in the Northeast.

• Not held to await appeal from the governor. Repeal effective immediately.

WILKES-BARRE — Despite their excitement at Tuesday’s ruling by a federal judge legalizing same-sex unions in Pennsylvania, Beth Hartman and her partner, Sharon Wall, don’t plan on marrying anytime soon.

But they’re more than happy to have the choice.

“I don’t care about the piece of paper,” Hartman, 49, said. “For me, it’s just to say that we’re not different. We’re equal.”

Some Luzerne County officials said they are preparing to accommodate those applying for licenses and a county councilman said the county has no right to refuse anyone now.

The Rice Township couple of 18 years rushed to the LGBT Center of NEPA to celebrate Tuesday after a ruling by a federal judge struck down Pennsylvania’s ban on same-sex marriage.

U.S. District Judge John E. Jones III declared the ban unconstitutional in a decision making Pennsylvania the last state in the Northeast to legalize same-sex marriage, and the 19th in the United States.

“We are a better people than what these laws represent, and it is time to discard them into the ash heap of history,” Jones wrote.

From the moment Hartman learned of the ruling at work, she said, her friends have approached her and contacted her through social media asking “When’s the wedding?”

“They obviously don’t know me very well,” she said, laughing.

Hartman and Wall, 54, said that although they’re in no rush to modify their arrangement, they want the ruling to benefit same-sex couples in long-term relationships who do want a legal marriage.

Bill Browne of Wilkes-Barre thinks he and his partner might be one of those couples.

Recently, his partner was diagnosed with cancer, Browne, 54, said, and the stress of the potential legal issues has only compounded the emotional stress brought on by the illness.

He said they have hurried to make arrangements which, had this ruling come six months ago and the couple been allowed to marry, Browne said would have been unnecessary.

Browne was caring for his partner at home when he learned of the ruling, he said.

“It means a lot to me and him,” Browne said, adding that he was both “overwhelmed” and “ecstatic” at the news.

Going forward, he said, the couple may choose to marry, a move Browne said would ease his worries about “legal loopholes.”

Legalizing same-sex marriage, he added, could have financial benefits for the state as well.

“You wanna see people spend money, throw a gay wedding,” he said. “This is a way to boost your economy without hurting anybody. Plus, it’s the right thing to do.”

Still, he said, Tuesday’s ruling is not the end of the LGBT community’s fight for equality, and he hopes it will act as a stepping stone to further non-discrimination legislature, such as HB and SB 300. If passed, the bill would prohibit discrimination by employers as well as in housing, credit and public accomodations based on sexual orientation or gener identity, perceived or otherwise.

Luzerne County Judicial Services and Records Division Head Joan Hoggarth said same-sex partners are free to apply for licenses in the office or online (www.luzernecounty.org).

However, county solicitors are reviewing the ruling to determine if the licenses will be issued. Licenses requested tomorrow would not be instantly issued regardless because the office has a three-day waiting period for all license requests, Hoggarth said.

A Luzerne County councilman evidently doesn’t think there is a need for a review.

“We have no right to refuse anyone,” county Councilman Jim Bobeck said. “If a same-sex couple walks up to the door for a marriage license, we have to let them in.”

Several Pennsylvania politicians released statements in support of the ruling throughout the day Tuesday.

Democratic U.S. Rep. Matt Cartwright said he applauded the decision, and thought the ban was “appropriately tossed aside.”

“With today’s historic ruling,” he said, “Pennsylvania joins a growing number of other states in recognizing that everyone should be treated equally under the law.”

U.S. Sen. Bob Casey, D-Scranton, said he was “pleased” with the decision.

“This was the right decision and is a step forward for equality in our Commonwealth and in the Nation,” he said in a statement.

Meanwhile, Democratic hopeful for governor Tom Wolf weighed in as well, championing a Pennsylvania that is “open and inclusive.”

“We need to fashion Pennsylvania as William Penn intended, as a commonwealth that puts out the welcome mat. We simply cannot do that if we discriminate against our own people,” he said.

But the ruling by Jones, a Republican appointed in 2002 by then-President George W. Bush, didn’t please everyone.

In a prepared statement, the Pennsylvania Family Institute called on Republican Gov. Tom Corbett to appeal Jones’ decision, and “make a vigorous defense of the fundamental institution of marriage.”

“This decision tosses aside not just the definition of marriage recognized in law by an overwhelming majority of the people’s representatives,” said PFI president Michael Geer, “but the definition that has been in place in Pennsylvania since our commonwealth’s founding more than two centuries ago.”

Geer said “children have a right to a mother and father,” and asserted that Tuesday’s decision abandons the government’s responsibility to secure that right in favor of the “desires of adults.”

The statement also labeled same-sex marriage a threat to progress when it said the traditional definition of marriage is “essential to a free and flourishing society.”

On Tuesday, the governor offered no response to the ruling.

The Associated Press contributed to this story.

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