Community members filtered into the propped open doors of the Greene Street Friends School Meeting House yesterday evening for a conversation focused around the Defense of Marriage Act and four families from the school directly involved in a lawsuit against DOMA filed by the American Civil Rights Union this past July.
Edward W. Marshall is the Head of School at Greene Street. “This was an important event for our school to host,” Marshall said following a panel discussion that included: ACLU-PA attorney Molly Tack-Hooper, widow Maureen Hennessey with daughter Kerry Goldman, new moms Helena Miller and Dara Raspberry, Len Rieser and Fernando Chang-Muy with daughter Isabelle Rieser who attended Greene Street and is now a teacher there, as well as Cara Palladino and Isabelle Barker, who are also involved in a separate lawsuit against DOMA.
Remembering Nelson Mandela
With such a personal connection to the federal lawsuit slated to go to trial next summer, Greene Street administrators felt a conversation for community understanding and support was crucial.
“Our mission is a mission that teaches children to value differences,” Marshall stated. “And among those differences are differences in sexual orientation and family structure. We are a school that welcomes different sexual orientations as well as different skin colors, religions, etc… With four families in our school community directly involved, this was a wonderful opportunity for us to provide personalized education about the impact of the Defense of Marriage Act on families.”
The meeting began with an opening by Sharon Mullally, Board Chair at Greene Street Friends School. Mullally called for a moment of silence in honor of Nelson Mandela and his recent passing.
“I feel there is a really strong connection between that man and his legacy and what we’re doing here tonight,” Mullally said “The post apartheid constitution in South Africa was the first one in the world that outlawed discrimination based on sexual orientation. [Mandela’s] spirit and integrity caused a lot of that to happen and is a connection to what we’re trying to achieve here at Greene Street.”
Same-sex marriage in Pennsylvania
Following the moment of silence, ACLU-PA attorney Molly Tack-Hooper stood to provide a brief explanation of the ACLU lawsuit against DOMA. The lawsuit which was filed in July of this year involves 11 same sex couples and two children of same sex couple families who feel the Defense of Marriage Act directly violates their constitutional rights.
The 1996 Pennsylvania law states that even when entered legally elsewhere, a same-sex marriage is void in Pennsylvania. Civil unions are also not permitted. Pennsylvania is the only state in the Northeast United States that does not allow same-sex marriage or civil unions. “
When you look at a map of the Northeast, there is now a big hole, surrounded by the states where loving, same-sex couples are free to be married,” Tack-Hooper said. Since the ACLU suit in July, six more lawsuits have been filed against DOMA and the ACLU, along with other organizations have formed a coalition called Why Marriage Matters – Pennsylvania that will be launching a public education and outreach campaign to accompany the lawsuits as they progress through the courts.
The program continued with personal accounts of the four Greene Street families involved in the ACLU lawsuit. At times, it was met with humor as Isabelle Rieser, adopted daughter of Len Rieser and Fernando Chang-Muy spoke of her struggles with being a “child out of wedlock.”
Hennessy shared the story of overhearing neighbors tell guests that her wife was her sister.
‘Layer after layer’
All who spoke were in agreement that the community at Greene Street Friends School has been one of support and acceptance. “We’re lucky because here we’ve always been respected and have never been made to feel differently,” Chang-Muy noted.
Yet he, and the 9 other panelists last evening understand that love and acceptance is not the case for most same-sex couple families nor does it lessen the impact of the constitutional liberties that DOMA restricts.
“You don’t realize the things you get by just being married,” Raspberry said. “But we do because we’re not married in the eyes of the law; we’ve had to go through the steps, the layer after layer in order to insure we and our family is protected.”
Raspberry and wife Helena Miller were married in Connecticut in 2006 and have a 6-month-old daughter. They moved to Philadelphia in order to be closer to family. “It’s a bit of poetic justice that we chose to move here to be closer to family, but in that act lost a lot of our legal protections as a family,” Miller added.
Each family was presented with a glass mosaic plaque of the equality sign made by students of the Greene Street Friends School as the meeting concluded with a brief question and answer session.
“Is this just the coolest case you’ve worked on so far?” an audience member asked attorney Molly Tack-Hooper as people laughed and cheered.
Tack-Hooper agreed that it is. “Earning the freedom to marry in Pennsylvania for all couples will not just take action from the courts,” she said. “it will take other couples coming forward and sharing their stories, community members coming together and endorsing the freedom to marry, business leaders saying ‘I want my gay and lesbian employees to be provided fair benefits;’ it will take everyone coming together and endorsing equality..”