Montgomery County opens door for same-sex marriages

     Rick Nelson Flor, right, holds a flower bouquet as he stands next to his partner Robert O'Rourke before their wedding ceremony in West Hollywood, Calif., Monday, July 1, 2013.  (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong, file)

    Rick Nelson Flor, right, holds a flower bouquet as he stands next to his partner Robert O'Rourke before their wedding ceremony in West Hollywood, Calif., Monday, July 1, 2013. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong, file)

    Montgomery County officials were prepared to issue the first same-sex marriage license in Pennsylvania history today, but the ceremony was halted due to a presumed conflict with a pending lawsuit seeking to legalize same-sex marriage in Pennsylvania.

    Montgomery County Register of Wills Bruce Hanes said the couple contacted him last week about applying for a marriage license, and after advice from the county’s solicitor, Michael Clarke, he was ready to approve the application.

    He halted that approval today at the request of the couple.

    “Based upon the advice of Mr. Clarke, my own analysis of the law and mindful of the Attorney General’s belief that Pennsylvania’s marriage laws are unconstitutional, I decided to come down on the right side of history and the law, and was prepared to issue a license to the couple. However, the women for reasons of their own decided this morning not to seek the marriage license at this time,” Hanes said in a press release.

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    “Had the couple sought the license today, I would have issued it and wished them all the freedom, independence, happiness and rights that our Commonwealth’s Constitution purports to grant to them.”

    The two women, whose names have not been released, are residents of Montgomery County.

    Michael Diamondstein, the attorney representing the two women released a statement, saying:

    “While Mr. Hanes and his office were ready and willing to issue the first same-sex marriage license in the history of Pennsylvania, my clients chose not to go forward because they were extremely concerned that the issuance of the marriage license would be challenged on procedural grounds without the Courts ever addressing the actual issue of marriage equality.”

    Two weeks ago today, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) filed a lawsuit challenging Pennsylvania’s 17 year-old law that effectively bans same-sex marriages. Governor Tom Corbett and Attorney General Kathleen Kane were both named in the suit. But on July 11, Kane announced that she could not defend the state’s position because she supports same-sex marriages.

    “We are hopeful that Governor Corbett and all of our elected officials on the county, state and federal levels will recognize that the love and commitment that they feel for their spouses is no different than the love and commitment that my clients feel for one another,” Diamondstein’s statement said.

    Corbett has not said whether he will fight the lawsuit.

    A spokesman for the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) Molly Tack-Hooper said ACLU representatives did speak with the couples’ attorney but did not directly advise the couple to withdraw their application.

    “The ACLU was not involved in their decision. We were contacted by the attorney of a couple seeking a same-sex marriage license in Montgomery County, but we didn’t advise them one way or the other as to whether that is something they should do,” Tack-Hooper said.

    “We know how it has played out in a few other states; we don’t know how it might turn out in Pennsylvania. Gay and lesbian couples seeking marriage licenses in Montgomery County should be aware that there might be uncertainty about the legal statuses of those marriages for a while because unfortunately in other states, governments have later invalidated the marriages.”

    In a 5-4 vote last month, the U.S. Supreme Court found the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) — the law banning federal recognition of same-sex marriages — unconstitutional. The finding sparked challenges to state laws banning same-sex marriage across the country.

    Tack-hooper says the ACLU’s suit seeks to challenge Pennsylvania’s law, which currently defines marriage as a civil contract between a man and a woman and does not recognize civil unions or same-sex marriages from other states.

    “One of the things we’re seeking in our suit is recognition of valid out-of-state marriages, as well as the legal right for same-sex couples to marry here in Pennsylvania. We’re waiting for the state to respond to our complaint and there is no deadline for their response.”

    Hanes said he welcomes applications from other same-sex couples.

    “Right now I have no knowledge of anything prohibiting me from doing it. If another couple came to me I would treat them exactly the same. I would approve it,” he said.

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