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Same-sex marriage (SSM) In Pennsylvania

Part 1: Legislative attempt to legalize
SSMs fails. Federal court case launched.

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Attempt to legalize SSM via the legislature:

State Senator Daylin Leach (D) introduced a bill intended to achieve marriage equality in Pennsylvania. The bill was referred to a committee in 2013-MAR but was never even given a hearing by the Republican-controlled committee. The Senate has now recessed for the summer, so no action can be taken until after they return in September.

The Senate currently consists of 27 Republicans and 23 Democrats. Half of the seats come up for reelection in 2014-NOV. Since essentially all Republicans in all states have voted against any bill providing any rights for the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender community (LGBT), the chance of this bill being approved by the Senate is slim. 1

The House currently consists of 111 Republicans and 92 Democrats. All of the seats come up for reelection in 2014-NOV. The chances of this bill being approved by this body is even smaller. 2

However, after the 2014-NOV elections, the composition of the Senate and House could change to give Democrats control of both houses. That might make it possible to pass SSM legislation.

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Attempt to legalize SSM via a federal court case:

On 2013-JUN-26, the U.S. Supreme Court released its ruling in a famous case: Edith Windsor v. United States lawsuit involving the federal Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA). The court found that the main section of DOMA was unconstitutional. This ruling may well have a significant effect on the drive towards marriage equality through the federal courts, in Pennsylvania and in the other 36 states that do not currently allow SSM.

During 2007, Edith Windsor had married another woman, Dr. Thea C. Spyer, in Canada where same-sex marriages had been available since 2005-JUL. Their marriage was recognized as valid by New York state where the couple lived. Edith's spouse died three years later. Because of the federal DOMA law, the federal government was prohibited from recognizing their marriage as valid. The IRS considered the spouses who had been together for many decades, to be "legal strangers" -- as mere roommates. They slapped Edith Wilson with an inheritance tax of about $363.000. New York State has an inheritance tax that is linked to the federal tax; they added about $275,000 state inheritance tax. If Wilson had been married to a man, she would have been able to inherit Spyer's estate free of taxes. She sued.

Her case and a many similar lawsuits successfully worked their way up the federal court system. In late 2012, the U.S. Supreme Court accepted her appeal from the the 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. The Supreme Court ruled on 2013-JUN-26 that Section 3 of the DOMA law was unconstitutional. This is the section that prohibited the federal government from recognizing marriages that had been legally solemnized in various states by same-sex couples. DOMA had denied same-sex couples access to 1,138 federal protections, benefits and grants routinely given to opposite-sex couples, including:

  • an inheritance tax exemption for widows;
  • an automatic power of attorney for spouses in health care decisions;
  • damages and legal recourse under workers' compensation laws for a spouse who dies or is injured in the workplace;
  • assistance programs for same-sex widows and widowers of military personnel and veterans;
  • pension and survivor benefits for widows and widowers of public employees;
  • Family Medical Leave Act provisions;
  • a spouse's Social Security retirement benefits;
  • etc. 3

That decision by the Supreme Court changes the stakes enormously for same-sex couples. Prior to Section 3 of the federal DOMA law being found unconstitutional, same-sex couples received no federal benefits, and only a limited group of benefits from their state. One of the most important state benefit to many same-sex couples was to be recognized as a married couple instead of being considered two roommates. After the Court's DOMA decision, married couples continue to receive a few hundred state benefits -- the number depends on the state. However they now have access to an additional 1,138 federal benefits and protections.

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Deb and Susan Whitewood, nine other Pennsylvania same-sex couples, and Maureen Hennessey have filed a lawsuit "Whitewood v. Corbett" at U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania in Harrisburg, PA. All have wanted to be married. Deb and Susan are a same-sex couple living in Pennsylvania who have been together for 22 years. Maureen lived with Mary Beth McIntyre for 29 years until the latter's death earlier in 2013. The remaining couples have been together from 6 to 32 years; 5 have been together for more than two decades. The American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania, the national American Civil Liberties Union, and volunteer counsel from the law firm of Hangley Aronchick Segal Pudlin & Schillerare are assisting the plaintiffs to sue the state. Some of the plaintiffs want to marry in Pennsylvania; others have already married in another state or country and want Pennsylvania to recognize their out-of-state marriages. 4,5 The case is expected to be based to a considerable degree on statements made in the Supreme Court's ruling in the Edith Windsor v. United States lawsuit.

Mark Aronchick, an ACLU lawyer for the plaintiffs, issued a statement that is obviously based on the U.S. Supreme Court's ruling in Windsor. He said that the Pennsylvania law:

"... cannot stand under any level of scrutiny because excluding same-sex couples from marriage does not further any legitimate government interest. It serves only to insult and hurt lesbian and gay couples and their families."5

He also said:

"This is no doubt the most important civil-rights lawsuit in the nation right now." 6

Witold J. Walczak, the legal director of ACLU-Pennsylvania said:

"Nobody here is trying to change the definition of marriage. Marriage is about love and family and commitment. ... If we win this case, marriage will be no different than it is today, except that it will be fairer."

James Esseks, director of the ACLU’s Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender & AIDS Project, said:

"Pennsylvania recognizes straight people’s marriages from Maine and New York, but it doesn’t recognize gay people’s marriages from Maine and New York. The question is, why?" 7

According to Philly.com:

"The suit, announced from the steps of the Capitol Rotunda, alleges that the state's Defense of Marriage Act, along with its refusal to marry same-sex couples or recognize such marriages from other states, violates a fundamental right to marry as well as the Constitution's equal-protection clause. Gov. Corbett [R] and state Attorney General Kathleen Kane [D] are among the named defendants. Both said through spokesmen that they were reviewing the suit.

Corbett, a Republican, has voiced support for the gay-marriage ban. Kane, a Democrat, said in her 2012 campaign that she favors same-sex marriage rights. 'But the attorney general has to represent the commonwealth,' she said at a candidates' debate. 'So that puts you in a precarious position. What do you do now'? ..."

"The suit contends the state has no legitimate interest in banning same-sex marriage, and that the ban disparages and injures lesbian and gay couples and their families by denying them a long list of legal and financial protections afforded to heterosexual couples" by the federal government 6

There is speculation that the U.S. is reaching -- or has reached -- a "tipping point" where the rate of change of marriage equality is rapidly accelerating. Ted Martin, executive director of Equality Pennsylvania -- a pro-LGBT advocacy group -- said:

Poll after poll shows people in support when they understand. They're in support of nondiscrimination, they're in support of marriage equality. ... We know now we really have the public on our side. 6

This may well be the first of many lawsuits to be filed in federal court across the country in the 37 states that currently do not allow same-sex couples to marry.

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This topic continues in the next essay

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References used:

The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.

  1. "Pennsylvania State Senate," Wikipedia, as for 2013-JUN-22, at: http://en.wikipedia.org/
  2. "Pennsylvania House of Representatives," as for 2013-JUN-04, at: http://en.wikipedia.org/
  3. "Pennsylvania's gay marriage ban challenged," USA Today, 2013-JUL-09, at: http://www.usatoday.com/
  4. "ACLU Sues to Overturn Pennsylvania's Gay-Marriage Ban," NewsMax, 2013-JUL-09, at: http://www.newsmax.com/
  5. "Whitewood v. Corbett," American Civil Liberties Union, 2013-JUL-09, at: http://www.aclu.org/
  6. Angela Couloumbis and Jeff Gammage, "Suit seeks to overturn Pa.'s ban on same-sex marriage," The Philadelphia Inquirer, 2013-JUL-10, at: http://www.philly.com/philly/news/local/20130710_Suit_seeks_to_overturn_Pa__s_ban_on_same-sex_marriage.html
  7. Juliet Eilperin, "ACLU launches legal challenge to Pa. ban on same-sex marriage," Washington Post, 2013-JUL-09, at: http://www.washingtonpost.com/

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Copyright © 2013 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance 
Originally written: 2013-JUL-10
Latest update: 2013-JUL-31
Author: B.A. Robinson

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