Wednesday night, in what was probably a first, the register of wills & clerk of orphans court of Montgomery County appeared on the “Rachel Maddow Show” on MSNBC. Bruce Hanes appeared on the talk program to explain why he had begun issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples, in spite of Pennsylvania law prohibiting it.
“You have two folks come in and ask for the recognition of their union. That puts it in an entirely different framework,” Hanes told Maddow. “It’s not academic anymore.”
In years past, it was rare for an elected official to go on the record supporting changing the marriage laws. But in recent months, the issue of same-sex marriage has gotten more recognition, and increasing support, at all levels of government, said Ted Martin, the director of Equality Pennsylvania. Martin said that “to watch everything happen so fast and so quickly is a little bit of through-the-looking glass, almost. It is just a remarkable stampede.”
James Carville famously described Pennsylvania as: “On one side you have Pittsburgh. On the other side Philadelphia. In the middle, you have Alabama.”
It’s a little extreme, but the Keystone State does have a reputation for social conservatism, relative to its neighbors in the Northeast.
However, on same-sex marriage, observers agree with Martin that the wind has shifted in its favor.
The Montgomery County marriage licenses come in the same month that the ACLU filed a lawsuit against the state ban and the state attorney general, Democrat Kathleen Kane, said she believed the law violated Pennsylvania’s constitution and would not defend it in federal court.
Last year, it was Democratic Senator Bob Casey, who is conservative on some issues such as abortion, who said he had come to believe that same-sex couples should be able to wed.
As Christopher Borick, professor and pollster at Muhlenberg College noted, “Almost every poll that’s come out in the last year in the commonwealth shows a majority of Pennsylvanians at this point support gay marriage, while roughly a third or a little bit higher oppose this possibility.”
Borick said the voting public is more closely divided because it skews a little bit older. Borick did not go quite as far as to say politicians are blowing with the political breeze, but he said he believes the new atmosphere has made it easier for elected officials who might have supported same-sex marriages personally to come out publicly in its favor—no pun intended.
“For a number of politicians like Kathleen Kane,” Borick said, “I think there’s a sense that this issue is clearly headed in one direction and at this point they feel comfortable in lining up their public support for same-sex marriage.”
When Kane announced that she would not defend Pennsylvania’s gay marriage ban, Republican detractors criticized her, but mostly on the legality of the move, not on her support for same-sex unions.
“Even Republicans, I think they may not admit this but they know it’s a matter of when,” said Jeff Jubelirer, a Republican consultant based in Philadelphia.
He said a moderate Republican or a conservative Democrat might even get a boost in the general election by supporting same-sex marriage. However, it could mean political suicide in a GOP primary.
“Republicans are vulnerable in many districts in Pennsylvania,” he explained.
“If they were to support civil unions or gay marriage, they would be very vulnerable to losing in a primary because someone to the right of that moderate public official, moderate Republican could knock them off,” Jubelirer said.
Jubelirer said Pennsylvania has never been a trailblazer on progressive social issues and he does not think the state will allow gay marriage for at least a couple of years, likely through the courts.
Josh Shapiro, a commissioner in Montgomery County, which issued the marriage licenses this week, agreed that legislative change could take time.
“I think evolution in Pennsylvania towards marriage equality is slower than some other states, but that doesn’t mean we won’t get there,” Shapiro said.
Meanwhile, going its own way, Shapiro’s county is still accepting marriage license applications from same-sex couples.