Meadville Tribune

May 21, 2014

State's gay marriage ban overturned by judge

By John Finnerty
Meadville Tribune

HARRISBURG — Mike Bartholomew and his longtime partner, Mike Escobar, visited the Northumberland County Courthouse in Sunbury over the years and joked that they were looking for a marriage license.

Now, they can actually get one.

Bartholomew and Escobar, who’ve been partners for 24 years, joined about 100 other people at a rally at the Capitol on Tuesday afternoon to celebrate U.S. District Judge John E. Jones III’s decision striking down Pennsylvania’s ban on same-sex marriage.

“We are a better people than what these laws represent, and it is time to discard them into the ash heap of history,” Jones wrote.

The judge declined to put his ruling on hold for a possible appeal by Republican Gov. Tom Corbett, so it went into immediate effect. The governor, who opposes gay marriage, did not issue a statement or indicate whether he would appeal. However, his state party chairman complained that an “activist” judge had usurped the power of the Legislature.

Amid a frenzy of celebration across the state, county offices in Philadelphia stayed open late to handle marriage applications, while officials in Pittsburgh were closed for election day but accepting them online. Couples must wait three days before getting married, unless a sympathetic judge grants a waiver.

Bartholomew, who grew up in Sunbury, said they’d refused to travel to another state to get married, telling themselves “it didn’t matter.”

Escobar agreed that a marriage license is simply “a piece of paper.” The couple, who live in Elizabethtown, are committed to each other with or without it, he said.

Still, said Escobar, Tuesday’s ruling was important because it shows that the government recognizes that he and Bartholomew have the same rights as heterosexual couples.

“I finally feel like an American,” Escobar said. “I felt unequal.”

In Crawford County, Clerk of Courts Patricia Wetherbee has adopted a wait-and-see attitude. Late Tuesday afternoon, Wetherbee told the Tribune that her office has not received any official notification about how to proceed.

“I’m waiting to hear from the state (attorney),” Wetherbee said. “I’m just not going to move forward (with issuing licenses) until we hear official word. Once that is received, we’re prepared to move forward.”

To Meadville City Councilman Bob Langley, the ruling was about Equal Rights. Langley and his long-time partner, John Despo, crossed the Pennsylvania state line to exchange vows in an Episcopal church in the western New York town of Westfield last year.

“By virtue of this monumental decision it brings Pennsylvania another step forward for Equal Rights,” Langley said. “We are now the 19th state to allow our citizens this fundamental human right. Personally John and I will be able to enjoy immediate recognition of our August 2013 New York State marriage.”

Bartholomew said he’s glad Pennsylvania is the 19th state in which same-sex marriages are legal, as long as Tuesday’s decision stands. “I’m just glad that we weren’t the 50th state to do it,” he said.

It was a sentiment shared by Paul Whitman and Tom Kinser, who also attended the rally to celebrate.

Whitman and Kinser met at church; they belong to the Metropolitan Community Church of the Spirit in Harrisburg, a congregation created by and for those in the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community.

They’ve lived together for two years, and Kinser has proposed, but they didn’t want to get a marriage license in a state where they don’t live.

Whitman said he believes it’s appropriate that the state where the Declaration of Independence was drafted to include the phrase “all men are created equal” has recognized that same-sex couples should be treated equally.

Pennsylvania’s version of the Defense of Marriage Act, defining marriage as a union between a man and a woman, was passed by the state Legislature in 1996.

Ted Martin, executive director of Equality PA, one of the organizations that joined the American Civil Liberties Union in challenging the Pennsylvania ban, said Tuesday’s victory is important but challenges remain for homosexual couples.

“You can still be fired for putting your wedding pictures on your desk at work,” he told the crowd at the Capitol.

The token word of caution didn’t dampen the celebratory atmosphere.

Andy Hoover, legislative director of the ACLU in Pennsylvania, started the rally with: “We won! Love wins!”

The Tribune’s Mary Spicer and The Associated Press contributed to this report. John Finnerty reports from the CNHI Harrisburg Bureau for The Meadville Tribune and other Pennsylvania newspapers owned by Community Newspaper Holdings Inc. Email him at jfinnerty@cnhi.com and follow him on Twitter @cnhipa.