BANGOR, Pa. — David Palmer grew up in Shavertown, graduated from Wilkes University and met the man of his dreams in Northeastern Pennsylvania. But Palmer and his partner had been considering moving out of the commonwealth because they can’t enjoy the same protections and privileges here as married straight couples do.
If a federal lawsuit in which they are plaintiffs is successful, they won’t have to.
Palmer, 65, and Edwin Hill, 67, are among 23 plaintiffs in a suit that the American Civil Liberties Union and the Philadelphia law firm of Hangley Aronchick Segal Pudlin & Schiller are filing in U.S. District Court in Harrisburg in an effort to have the state’s Defense of Marriage Act declared unconstitutional. That act defines marriage as between a man and a woman, and bars Pennsylvania from recognizing same-sex marriages entered into in other states.
The lawsuit, which names Gov. Tom Corbett, Attorney General Kathleen Kane and other officials as defendants, seeks to force the commonwealth to permit and recognize same-sex marriages.
“There is nothing else that we’re asking for in the lawsuit,” ACLU staff attorney Mary Catherine Roper said Friday in a conference call with Palmer, Hill and a reporter. “The only thing we’ve asked for is the freedom to marry.”
Palmer and Hill went to Kennebunk, Maine, in May to be married. The ceremony was performed by a notary public. Pennsylvania does not recognize their marriage.
They receive none of the government-designated benefits that a male/female married couple would.
Palmer noted that close friends of the couple, some of whom he has known since the mid-1970s when he lived in Greenwich Village in New York, couldn’t attend the ceremony because of the distance and travel. Neither could much of Palmer’s family, most of whom also live in Pennsylvania.
“If we had our choice, we would have gotten married in Pennsylvania. That is why we were very happy that Mary Catherine and the ACLU and the law office that is also representing us chose us (to participate in the lawsuit),” Palmer said. “We got married in Maine because Ed’s family, his aunt and his cousins live up there.”
In January, when Maine passed its Marriage Equality Act, “we decided that’s where we wanted to get married because we had no idea whether Pennsylvania at that point was going to even budge on the issue,” he said.
Roper, who got to know the couple while preparing the lawsuit, said there’s more to the story regarding their decision to get married, prodding them for details.
“He got on his knee and proposed to me,” Palmer gushed.
Couple met in 1988
Palmer and Hill met at a retreat in the Poconos in 1988. It was the Kirkridge Retreat and Study Center in Bangor — the first Christian retreat center that offered retreats to the Lesbian/Gay/Bisexual/Transgender community, Hill said.
Earlier in life, Hill, who hails from the Pittsburgh area, said he fought “tooth and nail” accepting that he was gay because at the time “it was viewed as an illness.” He “jumped at the chance” to get married back then, because he saw it as “a way out.” He and his wife had a son, but their marriage fell apart after seven years.
A graduate of the University of Pittsburgh, Hill also served in the U.S. Navy as a sonar technician aboard the USS Brooke during the Vietnam War. He worked for a while for the Allegheny County Health Department and then for more than 20 years for the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, where he oversaw programs to support veterans.
After graduating from Wilkes, Palmer earned a master’s in theology from Drew University. He was about to become a minister, but the Methodist Church didn’t accept gay ministers, and he was just then in the process of coming out as a gay man.
He went on to work at the Newark Museum for 30 years, eventually becoming director of exhibitions.
New Jersey to Poconos
The couple lived in Maplewood, N.J., for seven years and then bought a 3-acre tract adjacent to the retreat center in Bangor at which they met.
“It was terribly romantic,” Hill said.
The home of the retreat center founder was situated on the land, and they turned it into a bed and breakfast, naming it the Arrowheart Inn. The couple ran the bed and breakfast for 12 years until, as they said, they “retired for real” in 2008.
Hill said he and Palmer had a lot of discussion about whether they should get married at all before Palmer finally agreed.
“David would say, ‘Well, what difference will it make? We wouldn’t be considered married here in Pennsylvania.’ I just said, well, I think this is the time. We’ve been together 25 years. And, after many times on my knee, he finally said yes, that he would marry me up in Kennebunk. And it made a huge difference for both of us,” Hill said.
That huge difference is noted in the lawsuit: “It meant the world to them to be able to stand before loved ones and declare their love and commitment and to be able to call one another husband.”
In addition to the romantic element of marriage, there are practical aspects that can’t be ignored, Palmer said.
The lawsuit notes that like many seniors on fixed incomes, Palmer and Hill are concerned about managing financially in their retirement. They are especially worried that when one of them dies, the widower will be denied the estate tax protections Pennsylvania law provides to married couples.
“The fact that we do not have marriage equality in Pennsylvania (negatively) affects older people like us,” Palmer said. “Should one of us pass away, the other has to pay … inheritance tax on everything that we own together … It would be zero if our marriage was recognized in Pennsylvania.”
The lawsuit notes that the couple worked hard to save extra money for retirement so that neither of them would be forced out of their home due to the large tax bill that will come when one of them dies.
“But losing such a large share of the family’s assets will significantly reduce the economic security of the surviving spouse and the standard of living he will have for the rest of his years.”
Roper said there are some 900 laws in Pennsylvania alone that treat people differently depending on whether they’re married, in addition to 1,100 laws at the federal level, most of which Palmer and Hill won’t be able to benefits from.
“Things like Social Security survivor benefits, and things like whether or not you’re recognized as the decision maker when one of you goes to the hospital. It’s just kind of everything, and all of that is more immediate for people who are older,” Roper said.
Roper said it’s encouraging that Kane, the attorney general, refused to defend the suit because she believes Pennsylvania’s marriage law is unconstitutional. Attorneys from the Office of the Governor can represent the state.
Roper said the defendants have until the end of the month to file a response to the suit, but likely will need and be granted additional time.
“The next stage will be gathering the evidence, because we think it’s really important to conduct a trial at which we say to the judge, ‘They say they have some reasons for discriminating against our couples. Let’s hear the reasons.’ We’ll go through them one by one. We’ll disprove all of them,” Roper said.