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Holdout Pennsylvania Pelted With Gay Marriage Lawsuits

Originally published on October 6, 2013 5:47 pm

In June, the U.S. Supreme Court ruling on the Defense of Marriage Act said that the federal government must recognize same-sex marriages from states that allow them. Since the decision, couples in states which do not recognize same-sex marriages have filed a flurry of lawsuits.

Conditions are ripe for litigation in those states, like Pennsylvania. In July, a rogue county clerk outside Philadelphia started granting marriage licenses to gays and lesbians, defying the state's ban.

Pennsylvania filed suit against D. Bruce Hanes, but he had already issued more than 100 licenses before the court told him to stop.

Under a Jewish wedding canopy, two brides signed the very first marriage certificate issued to a same-sex couple in the state of Pennsylvania. Dee Spagnuolo and Sasha Ballen were married, surrounded by their three young children, friends and family.

Hanes argued that after the Supreme Court's decision, denying couples like Spagnuolo and Ballen marriage licenses would violate the Constitution. Nils Hagen-Frederiksen, spokesman for Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett, said that wasn't Hanes' call to make.

"We are a government of laws, and the process is there to change laws or challenge laws. And that issue, these issues, are not solved by individual public officials deciding based on their own personal opinions what to do or what not to do," Frederiksen says.

Wanting The Same Benefits Other People Get

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

They want the full spectrum of federal benefits now provided to same-sex couples in other states following the Supreme Court's decision. There's been a lot of legal activity regarding gay marriage in Pennsylvania's state and federal courts since the ruling.

"You have a lot of people living here, seeing that their neighbors are getting something that they aren't," says the couple's lawyer, David Cohen.

Pennsylvania remains the only state in the Northeast which does not yet allow same-sex partnerships. A judge in New Jersey ruled last week that New Jersey, which has civil unions, must begin recognizing marriages. Gov. Chris Christie has appealed.

Pressure From Inside And Out

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

"It's less about identifying a particular state where it's the right argument, but a state where there's perhaps the greatest likelihood of success before the courts," he says.

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.

Opponents of same-sex marriage in Pennsylvania say they would rather work this out legislatively.

"We should debate it as a society. And ultimately the best place in a democracy to deal with difficult issues is in our Legislature," says Randall Wenger, counsel for the Pennsylvania Family Institute.

On Thursday, Rep. Brian Sims, the state's first openly gay man elected to the Pennsylvania Legislature, introduced a same-sex marriage bill in the state House of Representatives.

Copyright 2013 WHYY, Inc.. To see more, visit http://www.whyy.org.

Transcript

ARUN RATH, HOST:

It's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR West. I'm Arun Rath.

In June, the U.S. Supreme Court ruling on the Defense of Marriage Act said that the federal government must recognize same-sex marriages from states that allow them. Since the decision, couples in states which do not have filed a flurry of lawsuits.

WHYY's Emma Jacobs reports on conditions that are ripe for litigation in Pennsylvania where a couple recently filed the fifth lawsuit since the Supreme Court decision.

EMMA JACOBS, BYLINE: In July, a rogue county clerk outside Philadelphia started granting marriage licenses to gays and lesbians, defying a state ban. Under a Jewish wedding canopy, two brides signed the very first marriage certificate issued to a same-sex couple in the state of Pennsylvania. Their wedding video shows Dee Spagnuolo and Sasha Ballen and their three young children surrounded by friends and family holding umbrellas.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: It is now with great pleasure that I pronounce you spouses for life and legally married in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. And before they get to kiss, one more order of business...

JACOBS: Traditionally, in Jewish weddings, the groom stomps on a symbolic glass, marking the end of the ceremony. It turns out that's tougher in heels.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: I did at my wedding.

(SOUNDBITE OF GLASS BREAKING; CHEERING)

JACOBS: Pennsylvania filed suit against the clerk in Montgomery County. He issued more than 100 licenses before a court told him to stop. The clerk argues that after the Supreme Court's decision, he believes denying these couples marriage licenses would violate the Constitution.

Nils Frederiksen, spokesman for Pennsylvania Governor Tom Corbett, says that wasn't the clerk's call to make.

NILS FREDERIKSEN: We are a government of laws, and the process is there to change laws or challenge laws. And that issue - these issues are not solved by individual public officials deciding based on their own personal opinions what to do and what not to do.

JACOBS: Spagnuolo and Ballen are among two dozen couples who have asked the state to recognize their marriage licenses. Their lawyer, David Cohen, thinks one reason Pennsylvania has had so much legal activity in state and federal courts is location.

DAVID COHEN: You have a lot of people living here seeing that their neighbors are getting something that they aren't.

JACOBS: Pennsylvania remains the only state in the northeast which does not yet allow same-sex partnerships. A judge in New Jersey ruled last week that New Jersey, which has civil unions, must begin recognizing marriages. Governor Chris Christie has appealed.

Brian Moulton of Human Rights Campaign says that since the Supreme Court's decision, couples have filed dozens of constitutional challenges to state laws around the country.

BRIAN MOULTON: Because those arguments are the same, it's less about, you know, identifying a particular state where it's the right argument, but rather a place where, you know, there's perhaps the greatest likelihood of success before the courts.

JACOBS: The ACLU 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 more receptive. Opponents of same-sex marriage in Pennsylvania say they would rather see efforts in the state legislature.

Randy Wenger is the counsel for the Pennsylvania Family Institute.

RANDY WENGER: We believe this is an issue that should be decided legislatively. We should debate it as a society. And ultimately, the best place in a democracy to deal with difficult issues is in our legislature.

JACOBS: On Thursday, the state's first openly gay man elected to the Pennsylvania legislature, Representative Brian Sims, introduced a marriage bill in the state House of Representatives. For NPR News, I'm Emma Jacobs in Philadelphia. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.