Gay-rights fights pick up steam in Pa.

D. Bruce Hanes, (right), Montgomery County Register of Wills, at the marriage license and certificates desk at the courthouse in Norristown with some of his staff: (from left) clerks Drew Albert and Lisa Wayne and second deputy registrar Helene Sepulveda.
D. Bruce Hanes, (right), Montgomery County Register of Wills, at the marriage license and certificates desk at the courthouse in Norristown with some of his staff: (from left) clerks Drew Albert and Lisa Wayne and second deputy registrar Helene Sepulveda. (TOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer)
Posted: August 12, 2013

HARRISBURG - Pennsylvania received three reminders last week of how far the state has moved toward changing its laws on gay rights and same-sex marriage - and of how strong opposition to such change remains.

The tension between those poles in state politics played out at Montgomery County's offices, where the 103d marriage license to a same-sex couple was issued Friday, and in the Capitol, where, even as some legislators called for outlawing antigay bias in the workplace, a central Pennsylvania lawmaker laid out his case in strong language for preserving the ban on gay marriage.

"Gay rights, broadly defined, is emerging as a huge issue before the Pennsylvania legislature in the next year, legislatively and politically," said G. Terry Madonna, the veteran political analyst and pollster at Franklin and Marshall College.

Supporters of expanded gay rights hope to build momentum not only from the U.S. Supreme Court's June ruling overturning the federal Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), but from actions closer to home, such as Montgomery County Register of Wills D. Bruce Hanes' issuing of marriage licenses to gay couples in defiance of the state Marriage Law, and state Attorney General Kathleen Kane's refusal to defend that 1996 law against a court challenge.

Harrisburg has seen renewed pushes for legalizing gay marriage, and on Thursday, Reps. Chris Ross (R., Chester) and Dan Frankel (D., Allegheny) took the smaller step of proposing to ban workplace discrimination.

While their bill is not new, the list of cosponsors is: Ninety of 203 House members, including 11 Republicans. When Rep. Norman Berson (D., Phila.) first introduced the same bill in 1976, he had just one cosponsor.

Since then, 17 states have extended to gays and lesbians the same kind of protection against bias that women and racial and religious minorities have on the job.

"It is shameful that Pennsylvania is the last place in the Northeast United States with essentially no protections for LGBT people," said Jason Landau Goodman, executive director of the Pennsylvania Student Equality Coalition, which dug up the history of the bill.

But despite near-majority House support, the bill stands little chance of getting out of committee anytime soon. House Speaker Sam Smith (R., Jefferson) sent it to the state government committee - chaired by Rep. Daryl Metcalfe (R., Butler), a staunch foe.

Madonna said that if the discrimination bill ever gets to the House floor, he thinks it has reasonable odds of getting the 102 votes needed for passage.

But that would not happen without a fight from conservatives such as Metcalfe and Rep. John McGinnis (R., Blair), a finance professor and tea-party activist who won his first House term last fall.

In a fiery op-ed article distributed Friday, McGinnis argued that the state is obliged to protect heterosexual marriage and its procreative purpose as the "building block of civilization."

"I think we are living in an era of craziness," said McGinnis, who is on leave from the faculty at Penn State Altoona. "Civilization is based on life, and that only comes through heterosexual relations."

But another sign of political change can be found in the district next to his. It is represented by a fellow Republican, Mike Fleck of Huntingdon, who in December became the state's first sitting legislator to reveal that he is gay.

McGinnis joined other Republican lawmakers protesting Kane's decision not to defend the state Marriage Law against a suit filed by gay couples last month. Fleck signed on as a cosponsor of the antidiscrimination bill.

McGinnis, a Norristown native, said Kane and Hanes, both Democrats, are "not respecting the law of the land."

Meanwhile, same-sex couples have been flocking to Norristown to apply for marriage licenses. According to data provided by the county, they come from across the state: More than 40 couples who received licenses are from Montgomery County, more than two dozen from Philadelphia, others are from as far away as Columbia County in central Pennsylvania or Pittsburgh to the west.

Lynn Zeitlin, 72, of Penn Valley, who obtained her marriage license with her longtime partner Gabriela Assagioli, 66, two weeks ago, said Friday that the two came away thrilled by a feeling of becoming part of something larger.

"The sense that you're part of change that's happening in the world and in history is a wonderful feeling," Zeitlin said.

The suburban lawyer's words echoed those of Brian Stafford, 39, after he and his partner, Mark Diehl, 51, of Mifflinville in northeastern Pennsylvania, obtained their license from Hanes on July 26.

"This is the right side of history," Stafford said in the lobby of Hanes' Norristown office after receiving his license. "This is a bold step for the county."

For his part, Hanes said his office issued the county's 100th marriage license Friday to a same-sex couple without fanfare. By day's end, the total was 103.

"I think that we're at a point where all licenses are issued in the ordinary course of business," he said, though his office has been visited by hordes of reporters and was the site of a pray-in by protesters.

Of course, every license Hanes issues to a same-sex couple is now subject to two court fights - the suit challenging the state's law, and the Corbett administration's request to enjoin Hanes from issuing such licenses. Both are pending before state judges. As Hanes said Friday, "Let's face it: This matter is going to get resolved in the courts."

Madonna, the pollster who this year conducted the first survey showing a slim majority of Pennsylvanians supporting same-sex marriage, said the issue was also sure to be prominent in the 2014 governor's race, where all announced Democratic candidates have made known their support for gay marriage, while Corbett has said Hanes is breaking the law. The governor told reporters on July 31, "I know the clerk thinks he is coming down on the right side of history, but he has to come down on the right side of the law."

State Sen. Daylin Leach (D., Montgomery), a congressional candidate who has obtained a minister's license and conducted weddings for couples licensed by Hanes, compared recent events to those in the historic battles for civil rights and women's rights.

"What happens when you fight the wall of oppression, you create cracks and holes in the wall, and eventually it comes down," Leach said Friday shortly after performing his seventh same-sex marriage ceremony. "Statewide change is inevitable."

Contact Amy Worden at 717-783-2584 or or follow @inkyamy on Twitter.

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