Why so many same-sex marriage lawsuits in Pa.?

    Listen

    In a traditional Jewish wedding, the groom stomps on a symbolic glass to mark the end of the ceremony. It turns out that’s harder to do in heels.

    Brides Sasha Ballen and Dee Spagnuolo, recipients of the first marriage certificate issued to a same-sex couple in Pennsylvania, were married in July, surrounded by friends, family and their three young children.

    They’re now party to two of five lawsuits filed in Pennsylvania since the U.S. Supreme Court struck down part of the federal Defense of Marriage Act in June, thus granting couples in states that allow same-sex marriage the full spectrum of federal benefits.

    All the challenges revolve around Pennsylvania’s state statute, which defines marriage as between a man and a woman. The latest was filed just last week.

    Ballen and Spagnuolo received their marriage certificate from Montgomery County Register of Wills, Bruce Hanes.

    He eventually issued more than 100 licenses to same-sex couples, arguing that, after the Supreme Court’s decision, he believed denying these couples marriage licenses would violate the U.S. Constitution. 

    Nils Frederiksen, a spokesman for Pennsylvania Governor Tom Corbett, said that wasn’t the clerk’s call to make. The state took Hanes to court, and he has been ordered to stop issuing licenses.

    “We are a government of laws,” said Frederiksen after a hearing in September. “The process is there to change laws or challenge laws, and these issues are not solved by individual public officials deciding, based on their own personal opinions, what to do or what not to do.”

    Spagnuolo and Ballen are among two dozen couples who have asked the state to recognize their marriage licenses.

    Pennsylvania’s location may invite litigation

    Their lawyer, David Cohen, thinks one reason Pennsylvania has had so much legal activity, both in state and federal courts, is location.

    “You have a lot of people living here seeing that their neighbors are getting something that they aren’t,” he said, alluding to the fact that Pennsylvania remains the only state in the Northeast which does not legally recognize gay and lesbian partnerships.

    All of New England, Delaware and New York have same-sex marriage.  New Jersey has civil unions and a judge there ruled last week the state must begin recognizing marriages. Gov. Chris Christie is appealing that decision.

    Since the Supreme Court’s decision, couples have filed dozens of constitutional challenges to state laws around the country, according to Brian Moulton of the Human Rights Campaign.

    “It’s less about identifying a particular state where it’s the right argument but an area where there’s perhaps the greatest likelihood of success before the courts,” Moulton said.

    The American Civil Liberties Union has thrown its weight behind suits in Pennsylvania, Virginia and North Carolina in efforts to set precedents that would legalize same-sex marriage throughout the country. It expects federal judges in these regions will be receptive.

    Exploring legislative avenues

    Opponents of same-sex marriage in Pennsylvania said they would prefer that the issue be addressed in the state Legislature instead of going through the courts.

    “We believe this is an issue that should be decided legislatively. We should debate it as a society,” said Randy Wenger, counsel for the Pennsylvania Family Institute. “And, ultimately, the best place in a democracy to deal with difficult issues is in our Legislature.”

    Friday, the first openly gay man elected to the Pennsylvania Legislature, Rep. Brian Sims of Philadelphia, introduced a same-sex marriage bill in the state House of Representatives, but it faces long odds in a Republican-controlled Legislature.

    Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

    It will take 126,000 members this year for great news and programs to thrive. Help us get to 100% of the goal.