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The judge has spoken. Commonwealth Court President Judge Dan Pellegrini rules that county court officials cannot issue same-sex marriage licensesin Pennsylvania. His order does not address the ultimate question of whether Pennsylvania’s ban on same-sex marriage is constitutional.
That matter awaits a federal court showdown. We’ll bring you the latest in the debate over gay marriage in Pennsylvania on Smart Talk, Thursday night at 8 on witf-TV. Weigh in with your opinion: 1-800-729-7532, email firstname.lastname@example.org, tweet, post a comment below or to Facebook.
Judge Pellegrini sided with the state Department of Health and ruled that Montgomery County Register of Wills/Clerk of Orphans’ Court Bruce Hanes had overstepped his legal authority by issuing 174 marriage licenses to gay couples since July. “In this case, a clerk of courts has not been given the discretion to decide … whether the statute he or she is charged to enforce is a good idea or bad one, constitutional or not. Only courts have the power to make that decision," Pellegrini wrote. “Unless and until either the General Assembly repeals or suspends the Marriage Law provisions or a court of competent jurisdiction orders that the law is not to be obeyed or enforced, the Marriage Law in its entirety is to be obeyed and enforced by all commonwealth public officials."
Hanes began recognizing same-sex marriages after the U.S. Supreme Court in June struck down portion of the federal Defense of Marriage Act. He claims that the Supreme Court’s decision renders Pennsylvania’s DOMA, which defines marriage as between a man and a woman, unconstitutional. James Schultz, Republican Governor Tom Corbett’s general counsel, disagrees and supports Judge Pellegrini’s decision. "We respect the interests and dignity of all the parties involved in this case, but we are a government of laws and it is important that all office holders across the state enforce those laws uniformly," Schultz said after the ruling. Hanes is filing an appeal.
The ACLU and several dozen same-sex couples have filed a separate federal lawsuit over Pennsylvania’s DOMA. Part of that act reads, “A marriage between persons of the same sex which was entered into in another state or foreign jurisdiction, even if valid where entered into, shall be void in this Commonwealth.” Gay-rights activists realize that rewriting the law in the conservative, Republican-controlled General Assembly would be infinitely more difficult than potentially finding success through a federal civil-rights lawsuit. Gay-marriage opponents say this lawsuit contravenes the will of Pennsylvania voters as expressed through their legislators who passed the DOMA in 1996.
Democratic state Attorney General Kathleen Kane, saying the law is unconstitutional, refused to argue on behalf of the Commonwealth and instead turned it over to the Governor’s Office of General Counsel. In turn, the General Counsel has hired former Pennsylvania Supreme Court Justice William Lamb to defend the statute barring same-sex marriage.
We'll talk to Hanes Thursday night. Our guests include Andy Hoover, legislative director for the ACLU of Pennsylvania, Michael Geer, president of the Pennsylvania Family Institute, who supports Pennsylvania's Defense of Marriage Act, Randall Wenger, chief counsel with the Independence Law Center, who argues in favor of PA's DOMA, and Ted Martin, executive director of Equality Pennsylvania, one of the state's leading organizations fighting for equal opportunities for gays, lesbians, bisexuals and transgendered Pennsylvanians. Martin and his husband, Dwayne, were married in California in 2008 and reside in Pennsylvania.
We’ll explore the history of marital law and the ramifications of Pennsylvania’s DOMA for gay and lesbian couples on Smart Talk. Be sure to join the conversation!
(This article had been updated to reflect new members of the panel.)
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