By John Finnerty
CNHI Harrisburg Bureau
When the U.S. Supreme Court handed down the landmark ruling that same-sex marriages should be recognized by the federal government, advocates in northwest Pennsylvania were caught off-guard, Meadville City Councilman Bob Langley said Friday.
But proponents of same-sex marriage are feeling so optimistic about a looming Commonwealth Court challenge to the state’s ban on gay marriage, they’re already figuring out how to celebrate, Langley said.
Langley traveled to New York to wed John Despo. Their marriage is not recognized in Pennsylvania because of the state’s version of the Defense of Marriage Act, limiting marriage to a union between a man and a woman.
Both sides in the American Civil Liberties Union’s challenge to Pennsylvania’s same-sex marriage ban notified the Commonwealth Court this week that a planned trial this summer is not needed. Instead, the court will listen to one hour of arguments on June 18.
“I never thought we’d get this far this fast,” Langley said.
Pennsylvania is one of 33 states that prohibits gay marriage, according to an analysis by the National Conference of State Legislatures. But the commonwealth is the only state in the Mid-Atlantic or Northeast to bar same-sex weddings.
“We are surrounded by progressive states,” Langley said.
Opponents of same-sex marriage insist that the decision to ditch the trial does not mean that their cause is lost.
“We do not believe that the Governor (Tom Corbett) is throwing in the towel,” said Thomas Shaheen, vice president for policy for the Pennsylvania Family Institute. “The administration has argued from the beginning that this is a case that could be decided as a matter of law and that a trial is not necessary.”
Challenges to same-sex bans have been taking place across the nation, both in state and federal court, setting up an inevitable showdown in the nation’s highest court, said Amy B. Hill, director of communications for the Pennsylvania Catholic Conference.
“The concern with challenges to state DOMAs like Pennsylvania’s is the Supreme Court could rule that yes, states have the right to define marriage, but they cannot define it in a way that discriminates against homosexuals,” she said.
Langley said that with the prospects of the state’s ban on same-sex weddings being overturned, advocates are looking to capitalize by bolstering other anti-gay discrimination laws. In 29 states, including Pennsylvania, it is legal to fire or refuse to hire a gay person, according to expert testimony submitted by Yale history professor George Chauncey as part of the ACLU’s lawsuit in the same-sex marriage case. Pennsylvania is one of 30 states where it’s legal to discriminate against gays in housing, Chauncey noted. Legislation in the Senate would provide gays with the same civil rights protections now used to fight discrimination based on age, race, religion or disability, Langley said.
Both sides in the dispute say they are looking out for the interests of children.
“It is unfortunate with the focus on the legality of the state DOMA that we miss the real debate, which is that marriage is a relationship with great public significance and affects the wider society as the foundation of the family,” Hill said.
But in his written expert testimony, Chauncey pointed to two rural Pennsylvania cases to demonstrate how the government’s unwillingness to protect gays from discrimination has had tragic consequences for children in the commonwealth.
In the first case, Timothy Dahle sued the Titusville School District in Crawford County in 2000, alleging the boy suffered years of abuse at school, including an episode when Dahle was thrown down a flight of stairs. Dahle attempted suicide by swallowing more than 100 prescription pills. In the second case, 14-year-old Brandon Bitner, killed himself by walking in front of tractor-trailer on a central Pennsylvania highway in 2010. Chauncey said Bitner left a suicide note explaining the boy could no longer tolerate constantly being bullied and called a “sissy” and other slurs at Midd-West High School in Snyder County.
“Today the civil rights enjoyed by gay and lesbian Americans vary substantially from region to region and are still subject to the vicissitudes of public opinion,” Chauncey wrote. “Like other minority groups, they often must rely on judicial decisions to secure equal rights.”
Erin Terrizzi, of Erie, said that while there is general optimism that the courts will overturn Pennsylvania’s ban on same-sex marriages, she and her wife, Amy, are tired of waiting. They want to start a family and they want to live in a place that treats them like everyone else, Erin Terrizzi said. They hope to move to Maryland, where same-sex marriages are legal.
She looks forward to the day when discrimination against homosexuals will seem like a distant memory.
“I think when we have grandkids and we tell them it was illegal for us to be married, they’re going to look at us and say, ‘Really? That’s insane,’” she said.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @cnhipa.