Gay couples wed in 2013 remain in limbo in Montco

Wedding day: Peg Welch (right) and Delma Welch of York with their marriage license in Norristown on July 31, 2013, a day after the Corbett administration asked Commonwealth Court to issue an injunction to stop Montgomery County from issuing any more licenses. The state now says the licenses must be reissued to be valid.
Wedding day: Peg Welch (right) and Delma Welch of York with their marriage license in Norristown on July 31, 2013, a day after the Corbett administration asked Commonwealth Court to issue an injunction to stop Montgomery County from issuing any more licenses. The state now says the licenses must be reissued to be valid. (TOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer)
Posted: May 31, 2014

A federal ruling last week legalized same-sex marriage in Pennsylvania, and was hailed as an eloquent manifesto on the right to marriage equality. But for more than 100 couples, it didn't go far enough.

Another court battle could be looming, entangling the same county - and the same couples - who helped turn the tide in Pennsylvania.

Gov. Corbett's office announced Wednesday that it won't validate the 174 marriage licenses handed out in Montgomery County last summer - before the federal judge's ruling. Montgomery County, on the other hand, says those marriages are signed, filed, and fully legal.

Joshua Maus, a spokesman for the governor's Office of General Counsel, said getting a new license, dated after the federal ruling, is the only way to ensure that those marriages aren't disputed in the future.

"It doesn't matter what the county says. It doesn't matter what the state says," Maus said. "Without a court's intervention, are these people validly married?"

Five or 10 years from now, for example, attorneys may challenge those licenses to get out of alimony, death benefits, custody, or other benefits afforded to married couples.

"The only way to protect those couples is for Montgomery County to issue new licenses," he said.

Montgomery County has been telling couples that isn't necessary.

"The marriages were recorded," said Montgomery County First Deputy Solicitor Joshua Stein. "We have no intention of changing the dates, or doing anything different with those licenses than we would for the heterosexual couples that got married in that period."

Widener Law professor John G. Culhane said the situation for these couples is so complicated and unusual that it was inevitable that a judge would give the final word. "It's a mess. That's my legal summary. It's a mess," Culhane said.

"If I were the [state] Supreme Court, I would resolve this very quickly," he said. "It really is the humane thing to do for the court to let these couples know where they stand so they can move on with their lives, and do what they need to do."

For the couples nearing their one-year anniversaries, the thought of changing their wedding date or re-doing their vows was daunting.

"They're saying, 'Just get married again.' What do you mean get married again? That's kind of insulting," said Jay Kawarsky, of New Hope, who married his partner in August.

"Frankly, I think it's mean-spirited," said Bill Caldwell, a Norristown councilman who married his partner of 28 years in July. "It's, again, forcing us to do something that no one else would be forced to do."

The May 20 ruling by U.S. District Judge John E. Jones III declared the ban on same-sex marriage unconstitutional, making Pennsylvania the 19th state in which gay and lesbian couples can wed.

Although it did not address the couples already married in Pennsylvania, Montgomery County Register of Wills D. Bruce Hanes - the man who handed out the licenses from July to September 2013 - said Jones' ruling indicates that the right of gays and lesbian to marry "is something that always existed" and thus should apply retroactively.

The day after Jones' ruling, Corbett announced that he would not appeal, and his attorneys began filing letters asking courts to dismiss at least five other same-sex marriage cases - including Hanes' - "as moot."

One of those cases, Ballen v. Corbett, was filed by 28 of the couples married last summer, and explicitly asks the Commonwealth Court to validate their unions.

Stein, the Montgomery County solicitor, said the Ballen case is the most appropriate venue to settle this issue.

But until then, he said, "there's no need to rush" in dismissing the Hanes case, which is pending before the state supreme court.

Maus said the state and the county are "on the same page. We want to ensure that these couples are given the same protections that any other couples, same-sex or otherwise, have."

jparks@philly.com

610-313-8117610-313-8117 @JS_Parks

www.inquirer.com/MontcoMemo

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