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A Tale of Two States: The Northeast’s Final Marriage Frontier

by Antoinette Weil
Contributor
Wednesday Aug 28, 2013
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Only two states in the Northeast have yet to legalize same-sex marriage.

New Jersey and Pennsylvania remain battlegrounds for the hot-button topic of same-sex marriage and have been receiving media attention for court cases and controversies. But this battle could be coming to an end sooner rather than later. With New Jersey’s same-sex marriage ruling coming up and a Pennsylvania gay marriage case on the horizon, September is shaping up to be a busy month.

Judge Mary Jacobson, the Mercer County Judge presiding over the Aug. 15 New Jersey marriage case, has said that she will make her decision on whether to allow same-sex marriage in September. This suit, filed by Lambda Legal on behalf of six gay couples and their children and LGBT rights advocacy group Garden State Equality, argued that civil unions do not grant equal protection under the law for gay couples.

"We’re making the argument that civil unions don’t offer the same benefits in New Jersey as marriage does," said Troy Stevenson, Executive Director of Garden State Equality.

A 2006 New Jersey Supreme Court ruling stated that civil unions might be granted to same-sex couples so long as those couples received the same benefits and protections under the law as heterosexual married couples in the state. After the June U.S. Supreme Court ruling striking down DOMA, thousands of same-sex couples were granted the federal benefits they had previously been denied, but not in New Jersey. And this, says Stevenson, means the state of New Jersey is no longer in compliance with the original NJ Supreme Court decision.

While marriage-equality hopefuls are awaiting this decision with fingers crossed, it is expected that same-sex marriage will make its way to The Garden State, one way or another.

A law allowing same-sex marriage already passed through both chambers of New Jersey’s legislature last year, but was vetoed by Republican Governor Chris Christie. Christie has also spoken out saying that the courts would be "overstepping their boundaries" by allowing same-sex marriage in New Jersey. EDGE reached out to Christie to ask by which means marriage equality should or could legally be passed, but was unsuccessful in reaching him.

Despite the governor’s apparent disapproval of same-sex marriage, it seems that the majority of New Jersians do not feel the same way. According to a Quinnipiac University Poll, 60 percent of New Jersey voters support same-sex marriage.

"New Jersey was predicted to be one of the first states to pass marriage equality legislation years ago," said Stevenson. "For it to have stalled the way it has is extremely unfortunate."

With a January 2014 deadline, legislators and LGBT advocacy groups are working fervently to secure enough votes for an override of Christie’s veto and a chance at marriage equality. It is not far-fetched, though, to think this result could come much sooner, as we prepare for Judge Jacobson’s ruling.

Pennsylvania, the other state in the Northeast that does not recognize same-sex marriage, has court cases of its own, and enough drama to land itself on a daytime talk show.

The American Civil Liberties Union filed suit against Pennsylvania last month on behalf of 23 plaintiffs, stating that the state’s same-sex marriage ban, similar to the DOMA statute overturned in June by SCOTUS, is unconstitutional. Attorney General Kathleen Kane (D) agreed and, in what looks very similar to the actions of the Obama Administration, refused to defend the statute.

"When the president came out for marriage equality it allowed people in elected office to come forward," said Ted Martin, Executive Director of Equality Pennsylvania. "Any time an elected official comes forward in support of equality it is a good thing."

But not everyone sees it this way. Pennsylvania Republicans including Governor Tom Corbett, are outraged at Kane’s neglect of her duties in defending this law. Some of the more extreme voices have even called for her impeachment.

And Kane is not the only one-stepping up to the plate. In what has seemed like a wave, public officials, one after another, have been coming out in support of same-sex marriage. State College, PA Mayor Elizabeth Goreham has admitted to hosting same-sex weddings at her home. Braddock, PA Mayor John Fetterman took it a step further, actually performing a marriage ceremony for a gay couple at his home in early August. And, perhaps the biggest scandal of all, is the now-famous D. Bruce Hanes, Montgomery County Register of Wills, who has been issuing same-sex marriage licenses, despite the statewide ban, since late July. Over 130 same-sex couples have received their licenses and wed in the weeks since Hanes began permitting it.

On Sep. 4, Hanes will face Governor Corbett’s administration and a Harrisburg County Judge for his actions. While the Health Department hopes to stop Hanes from issuing same-sex marriage licenses, others hope that this will result in a speedy win for marriage equality. If a Judge rules that Hanes was, in fact, acting in accordance with the state constitution, this could mean immediate reversal of the Pennsylvania marriage ban, or at the least, some strong precedent for the ACLU suit which is expected to happen in late 2014.

Mary Catherine Roper, ACLU Pennsylvania Senior Staff Attorney, is hoping that she and the plaintiffs she represents, are able to see their day in court.

"We think it’s really important to have a full trial with the opportunity to rebut any reasons they come up with (for not giving marriage rights to same-sex couples)," said Roper." That means it takes time."

Martin and Roper both agree that the courts are the best place for this issue to be taken up, rather than the conservative Pennsylvania legislature.

"The ACLU nationally is working with legislatures around the country," said Roper. "In Pennsylvania, the legislature is frankly more conservative than the populace. Polls show that 50 percent of PA voters support same-sex marriage, but you can’t see that in the legislature."

Indeed, in a Quinnipiac University Poll published in July, 49 percent of Pennsylvania respondents said they would support a state law allowing same-sex marriage (with 44 percent in opposition and 6 percent undecided). Further, 53 percent of respondents say they believe that same-sex marriage laws should be determined nationally based on the U.S. Constitution, and not by individual states (with 40 percent saying the opposite, that states should decide).

Looking at these findings it may seem surprising that not only does Pennsylvania not allow same-sex marriages or recognize same-sex marriages performed in other states, but also they do not even allow civil unions for same-sex couples. Gay couples in Pennsylvania have no marriage or domestic partnership rights whatsoever. And this, says Martin is a pervading theme in Pennsylvania.

"We need to look at Pennsylvania in a bigger way," he said. "Pennsylvania remains the last state in the Northeast with no prohibitions against discrimination, hate crimes, or bullying based on sexual orientation."

Martin says that what’s happening in Montgomery county, what Bruce Hanes is doing, is remarkable, but is sort of missing the big picture. Getting a non-discrimination act passed would be a real triumph, but learning how to treat LGBT people in general is the first step.

"When you can be fired for hanging a picture of you and your spouse in the office," said Martin, "then marriage equality seems like a hollow win."
But for many same-sex couples in Pennsylvania, the hope of wedding bells and all the benefits, protections, and positivity that come along with it, is still alive and maybe closer than ever before.

For now the fight continues, both in New Jersey and Pennsylvania.

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