Bid to bar gay pair's marriage is halted Twelve Pa. legislators tried to block a New Hope couple. A judge said they had no standing to bring a lawsuit.

Posted: October 20, 2004

A Bucks County judge yesterday dismissed a lawsuit by 12 Pennsylvania state representatives seeking to bar a New Hope gay couple from marrying.

Judge Mitchell S. Goldberg concluded that "there is no actual controversy" in the matter before him that could cause him to favor the legislators.

And, Goldberg wrote, the lawmakers lacked standing even to bring the lawsuit.

Lawyers for the couple - Robert Seneca and Stephen Stahl - issued a statement calling the decision, "a victory not only for the gay and lesbian community, but for all Pennsylvanians."

In a phone interview, Seneca said his reaction, and that of his partner, was "relief that this is over."

Seneca characterized the suit as "this little thorn in my side, an annoying situation that did not have to be."

Seneca said the couple have "no intentions at this time" to challenge the state's marriage laws.

Seneca, 49, is a salesman at a New Hope art gallery. Stahl, 55, is a twice-divorced grandfather, a theater director, and a Republican committeeman in New Hope.

In August, they marked the 25th anniversary of their commitment ceremony, which took place three years after they met in 1976.

On March 15, they came to public attention when they appeared at the Bucks County Courthouse and were denied a marriage-license application.

In later interviews, they said they were likely to challenge state laws prohibiting same-sex marriages.

Yesterday, Goldberg ruled that the two men "have not taken any legal action regarding their marriage application, let alone brought an actual challenge to the constitutionality of Pennsylvania's Marriage Laws in any court."

"If and when that occurs this court may have the opportunity to examine the constitutionality" of the state's marriage laws.

"At this point in time," Goldberg wrote, the legislators' "request that we do so is simply not ripe for consideration."

On May 14, the 12 state representatives and a Bedford County firm filed the suit, asking Bucks County Court to affirm that Pennsylvania's marriage laws are constitutional.

Yesterday, Goldberg said that he declined "to act as the 'legal adviser' of the Legislative Branch."

Goldberg noted that the legislators argued that they could sue because they sponsored, voted for, or supported the state's marriage laws.

"Simply being part of a legislative body that passes laws does not grant members of that legislature standing" to file such a suit, Goldberg wrote.

Glen Lavy, senior legal counsel for the Alliance Defense Fund in Scottsdale, Ariz., had argued the case for the legislators at an Oct. 8 hearing before Goldberg in Doylestown.

Yesterday, Lavy said he was "disappointed" but had not decided whether to appeal Goldberg's decision.

"The reason we filed this lawsuit was we believe that legislators have the right to be involved in any litigation about the definition of marriage," he said.

Stacey Sobel, executive director of the Center for Lesbian and Gay Civil Rights in Philadelphia, said lawyers for the couple were "very pleased with the court's decision."

The judge and the law, she said, are "very clear that legislators should not be suing citizens of the commonwealth because they discuss controversial subjects."

Asked whether the decision might encourage same-sex couples to challenge the marriage laws, she said, "It's impossible to speculate at this time what the ramifications of this case will be."

In addition to Sobel's agency, the couple's defense team consisted of lawyers from the ACLU of Pennsylvania, the Women's Law Project, and the Philadelphia firm of Schnader Harrison Segal and Lewis.

The legislators were led by State Rep. Allan Egolf, a Republican representing Perry County and part of Franklin County in south-central Pennsylvania.

The Bedford County firm, Creative Pultrusions, a polymer producer, argued that it would be hurt by paying increased benefits to gay employees.

The Alliance Defense Fund was established in 1993 by several Protestant ministers, the organization has stated, "for the legal defense and advocacy of religious freedom."

Contact staff writer Walter F. Naedele at 215-345-7768 or at wnaedele@phillynews.com.

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