The fight for same-sex marriage in PA

Assistant Lifestyles Editor, Ryan Bunker, shares his opinion on the movement

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” In this very state of Pennsylvania, more than 200 years ago, the monumental document that would serve as the foundation for our nation was penned; letting the world know that America was a free nation with liberty and equality intertwined in its very make up.

Interestingly enough, if we fast-forward to Pennsylvania today, members of the homosexual community still feel the tyranny. As a state rich with our nation’s history, one would expect Pennsylvania to be a leader in championing for liberty and justice, facilitating the pursuit of happiness, and seeking equality for all. Sadly though, one would be mistaken, as Pennsylvania still remains a repressive state for this subgroup of its citizenry. However, thanks in part to changing societal views, recent court decisions and those motivated within our state’s legal system, the fight for equality, specifically the right for same-sex couples to enjoy the right to be married, has never been stronger than it is today.

Within the past year alone, in response to a growing number of those in support of same-sex marriage, quite a few things have changed. Earlier this year, the Supreme Court struck down a key provision in a piece of legislation, the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), that prohibited federal recognition of same-sex marriages by those married in states where it is legal. This created an inability to enjoy certain benefits that heterosexual couples are entitled to, benefits such as the ability to file a joint tax return or Social Security benefits. After the ruling made by The Supreme Court in June of this year, three courageous elected officials raised the stakes and decided that based on this ruling, the legality of Pennsylvania’s DOMA-like Marriage Act forbidding same-sex marriage should be called into question.

After The Supreme Court made its landmark ruling on DOMA, elected officials began questioning their moral, ethical, and legal obligations to uphold the United States Constitution. After such a pivotal decision was handed down by our nation’s most powerful court, officials began to challenge the idea. Specifically, Register of Wills for Montgomery County, W. Bruce Hanes. Hanes decided that he had a legal and ethical duty to allow same-sex couples to marry, and thus began a national media firestorm. As County Register of Wills, Hanes used his authority to issue marriage certificates to grant over 100 same sex couples with documents, allowing them to get married.

In a statement to the Philadelphia Inquirer, Hanes gave some insight into his actions in very simplistic terms: “I decided to come down on the right side of history and the law.” The dilemma for these couples recently granted licenses to wed, however, was who would officiate these ceremonies and make them legally binding. The answer to their question came from none other than outspoken and somewhat unorthodox Braddock Mayor John Fetterman (D). Fetterman, known for his unusual tactics and redevelopment of Braddock, a town that has fallen on hard times since the collapse of the steel industry, is no stranger to controversy. When he saw an opportunity to do the right thing, he pounced on it. After Hanes decided to issue marriage certificates to same-sex couples, Fetterman did not miss a beat, letting it be known that he, in fact, would be more than happy to use his authority to preside over these unions.

“It’s how I have always felt; it’s what I have always believed in. The opportunity presented itself where legal marriage certificates issued by Montgomery County [sic] and I was able to officiate them,” said Fetterman.

Taking Hanes’ lead, Fetterman has shown no stopping point, indicating that he will continue to marry same-sex couples as long as they have the legal documentation required.

Finally, the third key player in this ongoing debate within Pennsylvania is the Attorney General Kathleen Kane (D). As Attorney General for the Keystone state, two of Kane’s duties are to uphold the United States Constitution and to defend Pennsylvania against litigation that other parties may file against the state. This past summer, however, Pennsylvanians learned that when the two duties conflict, the first one prevails. The results from such a conflict are quite monumental.

Standing up for same-sex couples within her state, Kane made the courageous announcement that her office would, not be representing the state in litigation regarding Pennsylvania’s adaptation of DOMA, releasing the statement, “I cannot ethically defend the constitutionality of Pennsylvania’s version of DOMA where I believe it to be wholly unconstitutional.” In closing her statement, Kane also adds an appeal to the citizens of PA as well, “It is our duty, each and every one of us, to protect the constitutionality, to protect the rights and dignity of others, and to protect the equality of all men and women in this Commonwealth.”  While her decision to appoint the Office of General Council rather than have her own office defend the state may seem trivial and insignificant, her actions have helped to bring a renewed fight for equality to Pennsylvania.

As is the case with every story about three brave individuals who believe in standing up for what is just, there is also a an antagonist, who will try to undermine what has been accomplished. Upsettingly, the antagonist in the fight for marriage equality in Pennsylvania is a person that we have entrusted to do the right thing and to further provide access to liberty, equality, and happiness for all, Governor Tom Corbett. From the moment that our state was thrust into the national spotlight, with millions eagerly awaiting to see if equality will, indeed, come to Pennsylvania, Corbett has failed to redeem himself and take a stance once and for all on the issue.

In a briefing filed by his attorney regarding same-sex marriage, Corbett’s office stated the following words that will forever tarnish his already questionable record. “Had the Clerk issued marriage licenses to twelve-year-olds in violation of state law, would anyone seriously contend that each twelve-year-old has a legally enforceable ‘interest’ in his ‘license’ and is entitled to a hearing on the validity of his ‘license,’ else his due process rights be violated?”

I had an opportunity to speak with a few political officials in Pennsylvania, and the reaction to this statement was that of unanimous disgust. In a discussion with State Senator Jim Ferlo (D-38th District), the senator offered the following in regards to the ignorant statements made by Corbett’s council.

“Well obviously, that’s demeaning and trivializes the important issue that’s before the court, that’s before the public, and before our own state legislature,” said Ferlo.

State Senator Daylin Leach (D-17th District) agreed with his colleague’s feeling of uneasiness over the remark.

“It’s disgusting; absolutely disgusting. I don’t know how a human being could say that, could hear those words coming out of their mouth, and not just be ashamed [sic] is, you know, the comparing [sic] adult, consenting relationships between two gay people who love each other to some sort of pedophilia or something, this is truly sick stuff,” said Leach.

Additionally, Mayor Fetterman also had a few, outspoken, words in regards to the remarksh made in the brief, as well.

“Thank you for being so over the top ignorant that even people that may not be a naturally [sic] support same-sex marriage be offended by that kind of statement comparing gay adults to twelve-year-old children, it’s like a drive down [Rick] Santorum road,” said Fetterman.

In an attempt to edit the previous statement, Corbett, during a television interview in Harrisburg, made the following gaffe when asked about the words his legal team used,

“It was an inappropriate analogy, you know. I think a much better analogy would have been brother and sister, don’t you?”

If the first statement wasn’t already enough to get people talking, his second remark, now comparing the legality of same-sex marriage to the legality of incest ignited a media firestorm across the country, leaving many in complete disbelief. Regardless, despite the current change in societal views and that more people are now supporting the notion of marriage equality across the country, Corbett has held fast in his personal convictions and continues to defend the state’s homophobic and unjust laws. This is clear due to the State Department of Health winning an injunction on Hanes to prohibit him from issuing additional marriage certificates to same-sex couples; a ruling that Hanes is appealing.

In 1963, the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. delivered one of the most powerful speeches ever given  on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. While his passionate words were focused on the racial inequality during his lifetime, his words still remain true to this very day, and can be applied to the rights of same-sex couples. Pennsylvania same-sex couples, have indeed, also been issued a “bad check” as well, denied the right to happiness and liberty. However, one day in the very near future, there will be the funds to cash this check, ten-fold.