Gay-marriage bills stalled in Pennsylvania

State Sen. Daylin Leach (D., Montgomery) called a flier sent to his constituents "nasty" and a dishonest smear by "rich bullies."
State Sen. Daylin Leach (D., Montgomery) called a flier sent to his constituents "nasty" and a dishonest smear by "rich bullies." (SHARON GEKOSKI-KIMMEL / Staff Photographer)
Posted: March 15, 2012

HARRISBURG - Last year, legislators in Albany legalized gay marriage in New York state.

Last month, legislators in Trenton passed a similar bill before Gov. Christie vetoed it.

Two weeks ago, as onlookers' cheers filled the marble halls of the State House in Annapolis, Gov. Martin O'Malley signed a bill legalizing same-sex marriage, and handed the pen to Maryland's first openly gay legislator.

In Pennsylvania, where Republicans' grip on the General Assembly is strong and upstate social conservatism stronger, a victory for gay rights these days consists of stopping a scheduled committee vote - on a bill stipulating that the only valid marriage in the state is a union of a man and a woman.

That little win, which occurred Tuesday, shows Pennsylvania is increasingly out of step with neighboring states, and out of touch with rising public support for same-sex couples' rights, said Ted Martin of Equality PA, a coalition of gay-rights groups.

He points to the coalition's busy Harrisburg agenda: the gay-related protections that a state court stripped out of the hate-crimes law have never been reinstated; there is no nondiscrimination law to prevent employers from firing employees because they are gay; nor is there a gay-specific anti-bullying law similar to West Virginia's.

Gay-rights advocates say they must play defense - they are too busy trying to block what they consider to be discriminatory bills to focus their energies on passage of a same-sex marriage law.

For now, at least, it is hard to envision a Harrisburg celebration like the one Gov. O'Malley hosted in Annapolis. There is little prospect such a bill could get to floor votes here, let alone reach the governor's desk. And a spokeswoman said Gov. Corbett supports the traditional-marriage bill and opposes legalizing gay marriage.

That hasn't stopped two of the state's most liberal lawmakers, Rep. Babette Josephs (D., Phila.) and Sen. Daylin Leach (D., Montgomery) from introducing bills legalizing gay marriage. Both bills have been parked in committee.

"There's no doubt that Pennsylvania will have full, equal marriage rights for gay and lesbian people," said Leach. "And like civil rights, 25 years from now, when all states have it, we'll be wondering what the problem was."

Rep. Daryl Metcalfe (R., Butler), chairman of the House State Government Committee, said he was pushing the traditional-marriage bill because he believed that institution "has never been under greater attack" by courts and legislatures more than now.

His bill calls for amending the state Constitution, and thus needs passage by the legislature in two consecutive sessions plus approval by voters in a referendum.

Metcalfe told The Inquirer that he postponed Tuesday's scheduled vote on his bill because of the large number of amendments attached to it, and because so many other bills were scheduled for floor action. Metcalfe said he had not set a new date for a vote.

Gay-rights advocates - who had launched an e-mail and phone-call blitz asking lawmakers to oppose the bill, and crowded into the committee hearing room - promptly claimed a victory. In a news release, they thanked the committee for not taking up what they called a "mean-spirited and nonsensical" bill.

"It's gone today, but it doesn't mean it's dead and buried," said Martin of Equality PA. He said amending the Constitution would terminate existing domestic partnership benefits of thousands of municipal and state employees in same-sex relationships, including those in Philadelphia and a number of southeastern municipalities.

Leach predicts measures such as Metcalfe's are "not long for this world" as support for same-sex unions grows. He contends politicians of all stripes will begin to see the proof in the pudding.

"You know what's happened in states where gay people get married?" said Leach. "Nothing."

Contact Amy Worden

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