For Montco same-sex couples, the wait is over

With the help of Helene Sepulveda, second deputy registrar in Montco, Nikki Wade and Rene Crystal (right) take an oath while getting their marriage license. The office had been stopped from issuing licenses in July.
With the help of Helene Sepulveda, second deputy registrar in Montco, Nikki Wade and Rene Crystal (right) take an oath while getting their marriage license. The office had been stopped from issuing licenses in July. (RON TARVER / Staff Photographer)
Posted: May 30, 2014

For several Montgomery County couples, the legalization of same-sex marriage - and Montgomery County's ability to sanction such unions - came just in time.

"We were prepared to head to Media today to get our license," said one woman waiting Wednesday with her partner in county offices.

"If we couldn't do it here today, we were going to go down to Philadelphia City Hall," said an older gentleman accompanied by his spouse-to-be.

"We were going to go to Allentown," explained one half of another gay couple.

Same-sex marriage has been legal in Pennsylvania since May 20, when a federal judge deemed the state's ban unconstitutional.

But Wednesday was the first day Montgomery County could issue licenses to gay and lesbian couples - many of whom were holding out to get their licenses in Norristown.

Bill and Raymond, an Elkins Park couple of 49 years, said they had never really intended to get married, but recently decided they needed the protection.

"I'm having a serious operation on [June] 6th," said Raymond. And although they have filed all the necessary paperwork - wills, powers of attorney, etc. - they found during previous stints in the hospital that doctors "wouldn't talk to Bill. They'd talk to my sisters," Raymond said.

"I feel safer, more protected now," said Bill. (They did not want to give their last names, Raymond said, "out of respect for other people's opinions.")

Montgomery County Register of Wills D. Bruce Hanes was the first in the state to issue licenses to same-sex couples - back in July, before it was legal. In September, a judge's ruling barred him from issuing any more, and the state Supreme Court had to step in to lift that ban, which it finally did Tuesday.

The first couple in line to get a license Wednesday, Hanes said, were the same women who set him on his path of rebellion.

Mindy Cohan, 47, and Lauren Rosenberg, 46, of Lafayette Hill, had called Hanes last summer to ask whether they could get a marriage license. The U.S. Supreme Court had just overturned the federal Defense of Marriage Act, and Hanes - who is also a lawyer - reasoned that Pennsylvania's ban should be struck down, too.

Hanes announced July 23 that he would not deny licenses to gays and lesbians, and over the next two months, 174 couples from around the state came to Norristown to take him up on the offer.

The governor's office quickly filed a complaint against Hanes, and it wasn't clear whether those licenses would hold up in court, or for how long.

Cohan and Rosenberg, on the advice of their attorney, decided to wait until marriage was definitively legal in Pennsylvania.

First thing Wednesday morning, flanked by photographers and reporters, they got their license.

Cohan, a veterinarian, said they were planning to go to Delaware County if Montgomery County hadn't started issuing the licenses Wednesday.

"We are having our recommitment ceremony - wedding, whatever you want to call it now - in only about three weeks," she said in an interview later. "We were coming down to a deadline in terms of getting a license, and Wednesday mornings are the only time we are both free to go to the office together."

After watching all the ups and downs in the fight for same-sex marriage in Pennsylvania, Cohan said it's "extremely gratifying that not just family and friends are supporting us, but we literally have the support of our state and federal government now."

Getting the marriage license in her home county, Cohan said, "was icing on the cake."

Married or Not Married?

After Montgomery County Register of Wills D. Bruce Hanes decided last summer not to honor the state's ban on same-sex marriages, 174 couples got licenses. At least 124 were married before a Commonwealth Court order halted the practice.

Despite a federal judge's ruling last week overturning the state ban on same-sex marriages, the validity of those unions is still up for debate.

Joshua Maus, a spokesman for Gov. Corbett, said Wednesday that "any recognition of the validity of a same-sex marriage based on a marriage license issued prior to May 20, absent judicial approval, places couples who have long awaited the legal recognition of their right to marry in peril."

Maus said all of those couples should obtain new marriage licenses.

Montgomery County, on the other hand, will recognize any marriage completed before Sept. 12, when the Commonwealth Court issued its injunction.

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