Same-sex marriage in the Keystone State?

By Conor Ahern, Task Force Ford Foundation Fellow

Following encouraging news out of Ohio earlier in the week, neighboring Pennsylvania is keeping apace with its efforts to provide marriage equality for all people within of the United States. Today, I was excited to read that D. Bruce Hanes, register of wills in Montgomery County (the third most populous county in the state), announced that he would no longer deny same-sex couples marriage licenses. He based this decision on his reading of the Pennsylvania constitution’s guarantee of equal protection for all, as well as his sense of obligation under the oath he took to the people of Montgomery County. Mr. Hanes’ decision contributes to the salvo of attacks on Pennsylvania’s marriage equality ban following the ACLU’s recently filed lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of Pennsylvania’s statutory ban on same-sex marriage in federal district court, Pennsylvania Attorney General Kathleen Kane’s highly publicized refusal to defend the law in court, and openly gay State Representative Brian Sims’ recent announcement that he hopes to accomplish marriage equality for Pennsylvanians through the legislative process.

I was excited to read this for a number of reasons, with many of them being personal. I moved around a lot for a non-military brat, and I don’t live there anymore, but the balance of my time still belongs to Pennsylvania. I was born and raised in Montgomery County and my mother and the majority of my extended family still live there. Even when we moved to the Bay Area of California for several years, the connection remained strong: we were perhaps the only people in the country who left picturesque and temperate Northern California for the oppressive humidity of Philly for our summer vacations. We moved back in my early teens, so I got to experience coming to terms with my sexual orientation in Montgomery County as well. Attitudes were different everywhere in 2000, and with adolescents for peers and mouthpieces for the church comprising most of my contact with adults, my memories of Montgomery County have become a bit jaundiced.

Perhaps this is why I never tend to object when Pennsylvania is treated as the political rump of the Northeast. Pennsylvania lags behind its neighbors in every measure of LGBT equality, from housing and employment anti-discrimination protections, to marriage equality, to hate crimes protections. Other publicity is less than flattering: just last month State Representatives (including Brian Sims) were silenced on the House Floor, because permitting them to speak about the Supreme Court victory in Windsor (striking down Section 3 of DOMA) would constitute “open rebellion against God’s law.” Pennsylvania was nicknamed the Keystone State because it provided ballast to our nation, and maps showed it holding up the rest of the Northeast. It’s been disheartening – as a Pennsylvanian devoted to LGBT causes – to see only maps showing the state holding this country back.

So that’s why these developments in Pennsylvania are so encouraging and refreshing. And I don’t mean to suggest that marriage inequality is on its death bed in Pennsylvania (after all, in a highly analogous situation, Gavin Newsom began issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples in California in contradiction of state law, setting up a legal back-and-forth involving state and federal courts, the California referendum process, and the United States Supreme Court. That was in 2004, and Californians only had their ability to marry their same-sex partners permanently established last month). Rather, I am heartened because this announcement comes from a state (like Ohio) that is often dismissed as somehow too staid or “traditional” to recognize – in Mr. Hanes’ words – “freedom, independence, happiness, and rights” for its LGBT citizens.

Perhaps more importantly, with no reference to DOMA or Prop 8, this announcement cannot be dismissed as an uninvited imposition from an unelected Supreme Court; rather, it is very clearly a realization generated from the conscience of an individual, within the context of a country where inequality for LGBT people is increasingly regarded as unjust and unworthy of our ideals. I am excited because I see no reason to believe that other officials will not come to similar realizations and take similar remedial actions. Nor do I see any reason that the scope of these realizations will be confined to marriage to the exclusion of the rectification of employment, housing, immigration, wage, adoption, and healthcare inequality for LGBT people. In the eyes of this Pennsylvanian, the keystones are faltering, and the faster they are dislodged, the sooner the edifice of LGBT inequality will fall.