In Montco, same-sex couples still have to wait

Under court order: Register of Wills Bruce Hanes (far right), clerks Drew Albert and Lisa Wayne (center), deputy registrar Helene Sepulveda (right) in '13.
Under court order: Register of Wills Bruce Hanes (far right), clerks Drew Albert and Lisa Wayne (center), deputy registrar Helene Sepulveda (right) in '13. (TOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer)
Posted: May 23, 2014

In July, Norristown was the only place in Pennsylvania where same-sex couples could receive a marriage license.

Now, it's the only place where they can't.

Back then, same-sex marriage wasn't legal. But Montgomery County Register of Wills D. Bruce Hanes said the ban was unconstitutional and refused to enforce it. He handed out more than 100 licenses to gay and lesbian couples before a court ordered him to stop.

After a federal judge Tuesday agreed with Hanes' assessment, couples statewide went to county courthouses, kissing, hugging, and cheering to see Pennsylvania join the tide of states where same-sex marriage is legal.

In Bucks County, the office put out a plate of rainbow cookies. In Delaware and Chester Counties, couples found short lines and quick service to get their licenses.

But in Montgomery County, Hanes' staff still had to turn them away.

"We explained to them the situation, that we still have a court order, and until it's lifted, we can't issue any licenses," said Joan H. Nagel, Hanes' chief deputy.

Most of the couples took the list of alternate courthouses and went on their way.

"But some of them were saying they want to wait for Bruce, because he started it, and they want him to issue their license," said Helene Sepulveda, Hanes' second deputy.

Hanes, who for two months had been the mustachioed face of same-sex marriage in Pennsylvania, said he was honored to hear that couples were waiting for him.

"It gives me a warm feeling that they would feel so loyal to me. And I hope to be able to accommodate them shortly," said Hanes, who was out of the office Wednesday to attend his daughter's graduation in New York.

The colleagues and couples who saw Hanes - a 67-year-old lawyer first elected in 2007 - through the controversy said they would do the same.

"If it was me, if they said I had to get married again ... I wouldn't get my license from anyone else," said Nicola Cucinotta, who with her partner, Tamara Davis, was among the first couples to get a license from Hanes in July.

"It's sort of a bittersweet result for him," said Dan Clifford, a private family-law attorney and gay-rights activist who works a few floors above Hanes in the county-owned building, "that he's the only guy who can't do this now."

Clifford and his partner of 22 years haven't officially gotten engaged yet. But when they do, Clifford said, "I'd probably wait until I can get Bruce's stamp on it. That would mean more to me than going to some other county I have no connection to."

After Gov. Corbett announced Wednesday afternoon that he would not appeal the federal ruling, his attorneys began working to drop their defenses of the handful of challenges pending in state and federal courts, said Joshua Maus, a spokesman for the Office of General Counsel.

Montgomery County Commissioner Josh Shapiro said county officials hoped to get clearance Thursday from the state Supreme Court. But until that happens, the county cannot resume issuing the licenses.

That made for a subdued scene in Hanes' office Wednesday - a far cry from the hoopla of couples, supporters, and reporters who crammed the building in July.

"It was shocking. I felt like Britney Spears. It was paparazzi time," Cucinotta said. "It was a lot of fanfare for a hot minute."

Amid all the fanfare, Cucinotta bonded with Sepulveda and the others in Hanes' office.

"I want to go down there so badly and just give all of them a hug," she said.

In other counties, the excitement level was higher. Shelley Dugan and Theresa Allen, partners of 16 years, were first in line to get a marriage license Wednesday morning in Delaware County, followed by lunch with their pastor to talk wedding plans.

"I didn't know this was going to happen in our lifetime," Allen said, adding that for their 14-year-old son, "it should have always been this way."

Bucks County processed 69 marriage applications Wednesday, of which 20 were from same-sex couples, said Rebecca C. Albritton, the register of wills.

Back in Norristown, Shapiro said the judge's ruling vindicated Hanes and the county for going out on a limb.

"I think people feel a sense of pride in the way Bruce conducted himself, and the way our administration has been willing to stand with same-sex couples," Shapiro said. "People want to affirm their relationship in a county that recognizes that commitment."

" Vindication is a strong word," Hanes said. "But what I can say is, I'm happier today about what the future will be than I am upset about what happened before."

610-313-8117 @JS_Parks


Contributing to this article were Inquirer staff writers Mari A. Schaefer, Chris Palmer, and Michaelle Bond.

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