On the heels of some state legislators trying to take the legislative route to allow same-sex marriage in Pennsylvania, another group has taken to the courts to force the issue.
The American Civil Liberties Union on Tuesday filed a landmark lawsuit in federal court in Harrisburg, demanding that Pennsylvania permit and recognize marriages between two women or two men.
The suit, filed in the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania in Harrisburg on behalf of 23 Pennsylvanians who wish to marry in Pennsylvania or want the commonwealth to recognize their out-of-state marriages, drew praise from members of the state and local gay and equal rights communities.
Plaintiffs will also ask a federal judge to prevent state officials from stopping gay couples from getting married. It names Gov. Tom Corbett, Attorney General Kathleen Kane and three other officials.
The plaintiffs are one widow, 10 couples and one of the couples’ two teenage daughters, and they include four couples who were legally married in other states but whose marriages go unrecognized by the state of Pennsylvania. Among the palintiffs are Edwin Hill and David Palmer, who now live in Bangor, Northampton County, where they met at a Christian retreat in 1988. Palmer is a Trucksville native and a graduate of Wilkes University.
Nils Hagen-Frederiksen, press secretary for the Governor’s Office of General Counsel, said the lawsuit is being reviewed and offered no further comment.
Plaintiffs said banning gay marriage satisfies no legitimate government or child welfare concerns because Pennsylvania judges routinely grant adoptions to same-sex couples that are viewed as in the best interest of the child.
“All loving couples should be able to share in the freedom to marry,” said Ted Martin, executive director of Equality Pennsylvania, an advocacy organization for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender residents. “This lawsuit is a critical step toward ending marriage discrimination against committed gay couples.”
Local gay man pleased
Stephen Cheskiewicz married David Michaels Jr. in Massachusetts in 2004, but the Monroe Township, Wyoming County couple’s nuptials are not legally recognized in the state where they reside. Cheskiewicz said he’s pleased to see the lawsuit and hopes to see it repeated in states nationwide that do not allow same-sex marriage.
John Dawe, the NEPA Rainbow Alliance executive director and board secretary of Equality Pennsylvania, applauded the suit and what it stands for.
“We believe all loving couples deserve the right to marry. The NEPA Rainbow Alliance Inc. is working with Equality Pennsylvania to ensure equal fairness for all. We are proud to endorse the actions taken today by the ACLU of Pennsylvania,” Dawe said.
The lawsuit, in the works since January, was not spurred by the U.S. Supreme Court’s three-week-old decision striking down part of the federal government’s anti-gay marriage law.
But the ACLU’s legal director in Pennsylvania, Witold J. Walczak, said the nation’s changing laws and evolving public opinion made it the right time to challenge the law after 17 years on Pennsylvania’s books.
The U.S. Supreme Court, in a pair of 5-4 opinions last month, let stand a lower court ruling that banning gay marriage in California was unconstitutional. The justices also recognized same-sex marriages when it comes to federally granted spousal and tax benefits.
Those decisions spurred calls for many of the 37 states that do not recognize gay marriage to change their laws. Every state in the northeastern United States allows same-sex marriage except New Jersey and Pennsylvania, though New Jersey does permit civil unions.
A 1996 Pennsylvania law defines marriage as a civil contract in which a man and a woman take each other as husband and wife, and it says same-sex marriages, even if entered legally elsewhere, are void in Pennsylvania. State law does not allow civil unions.
State Rep. Phyllis Mundy, D-Kingston, has signed on as a cosponsor of an in-the-works House bill that would make same-sex marriage legal in Pennsylvania. But she’s made it clear it’s an uphill climb.
“We have not even been able to get a vote to pass a bill to prohibit discrimination against LGBT individuals in housing and employment,” Mundy said. “I think we have a very long way to go to achieve equal protection for all Pennsylvania citizens.”
Local civil rights attorney Barry H. Dyller said he’s proud of Mundy and other lawmakers for trying to get the legislative ball rolling and believes “there’s really no reason for unequal treatment of people.”
The Pennsylvania lawsuit will likely not be the last, he said.
“I expect we’ll see very similar suits in numerous states.”
Cheskiewicz also compared the fight for equality for the LGBT community to the civil rights movement of the 1960s and said he believes society has evolved to the point where he’s confident change will happen.
“It’s a generational thing; the younger generation doesn’t care,” he said.
Though Congress has stayed out of the fray, leaving it up to individual states to take action on the matter, U.S. Rep. Matt Cartwright has been a proponent of gay marriage and lauded those who filed the lawsuit on Tuesday.
U.S. Sen. Robert Casey said he hopes “the issue of marriage equality is something that will be addressed more broadly in Pennsylvania to give all families in the Commonwealth the full measure of equality of respect.”
The Associated Press contributed to this story.