Debate over same-sex marriage rages in Bucks

Posted: November 25, 2013

DOYLESTOWN Bucks County commissioners spent an hour at their meeting Wednesday discussing an audiovisual system for the new courthouse, farm soil quality, and new chairs for the 911 call center.

But when the floor was opened for public comment, the first five residents addressed the same topic, and it was none of the above.

"I think that this whole gay-marriage thing and gay-rights thing in general is a new development," said Bill Tribley, 58, of Telford, later adding, "I would just encourage you to support traditional marriage in all ways."

Ground zero for the debate surrounding the state's ban on same-sex marriages may be Norristown, where the Montgomery County register of wills inspired a torrent of lawsuits by granting marriage licenses to same-sex couples over the summer.

But the issue is also bubbling in Doylestown because of its register of wills' spirited defense of traditional marriage.

Officials have exchanged pointed e-mails, released public statements on the issue, and explained their positions to concerned constituents.

And as the state's marriage law inches its way through court, likely heading to trial early next year, some political observers say such local dust-ups are inevitable.

"It's going to have tentacles everywhere," said G. Terry Madonna, a political science professor at Franklin and Marshall College.

The commotion in Bucks County picked up two weeks ago when Register of Wills Donald Petrille came under fire for a brief he included in the groundbreaking court case filed by the American Civil Liberties Union.

That case seeks to overturn the marriage law, and the 41-year-old Petrille - who is also a lawyer at McNamara, Bolla & Panzer - was included as a defendant because he declined to issue a marriage license to a same-sex couple in July.

Officials in Chester and Delaware Counties also declined requests from same-sex couples, according to their register of wills' offices, but neither was named in the suit.

In his brief, Petrille argues that marriage is rooted in the "biological fact that opposite-sex couples reproduce," and that the government should not "deprive a child of access to the comfort of their creators."

To distance themselves from those arguments, the county commissioners - two Republicans and one Democrat - issued a joint statement two week ago saying that they had "no input whatsoever" on the brief.

Diane Marseglia, the Democrat, issued an additional statement asking that the brief be withdrawn. She sent an e-mail to a group of officials, including Petrille, calling the brief "reprehensible."

"How do you intend to remove Bucks County and its residents from the insult" included in its arguments? she asked.

Petrille said Friday that the brief - written by Nathan Fox, of Begley, Carlin & Madnio L.L.P., a law firm hired by Petrille's office - was part of a strategy to craft the strongest legal defense possible.

He had not consulted the commissioners about it, he said, but added that he would work "more collaboratively" with the county solicitor's office.

At the moment he still plans to include Fox's firm in his defense, he said, but he would not say what legal strategy his team might use in a trial.

Fox could not be reached for comment.

If the defense mirrors what was included in the briefs, Andrew Koppelman, a professor of law and political science at Northwestern University, said similar strategies had succeeded in the past.

A majority opinion by the New York State Court of Appeals accepted similar explanations in 2006 and upheld the state's same-sex marriage ban. (Five years later, New York passed a law allowing same-sex marriage.)

But the arguments failed to convince a federal District Court judge in California in 2010, and the U.S. Supreme Court dismissed an appeal of that decision this year.

Outside of legal effectiveness, Koppelman said, the arguments are becoming politically unpopular.

"Public opinion is shifting," he said. "Younger voters are unmoved by these arguments. It's rapidly becoming the minority position."

Whatever shape Petrille's defense takes, same-sex marriage has already caused political commotion in Bucks County.

The unrest upsets people such as Kathleen Appell, 70, from Warminster. She said the commissioners were not publicly backing Petrille as vigorously as they should.

"If you can't defend your own elected officials," she said at Wednesday's meeting, "then why bother having them?"

609-217-8305 @cs_palmer

Staff writer Ben Finley contributed to this article.

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