Meadville Tribune

January 5, 2014

Pa. advocates for gay marriage wonder: Is this the year?

By John Finnerty
CNHI Harrisburg Bureau

HARRISBURG — Bob Langley and John Despo exchanged vows last August in a quaint, white Episcopal church in western New York — just across the border from Pennsylvania.

The choice of location wasn’t entirely theirs.

An influence on their decision is revealed in wedding photos snapped by the Meadville couple at the border. One photo shows Langley and Despo standing in New York with a caption: “Legal.” Another shows them in Pennsylvania with the caption: “Illegal.”

New York, New Jersey, Maryland and Delaware all recognize same-sex marriages. Pennsylvania does not.

“We are surrounded by marriage equality,” Langley said.

The contrast between Pennsylvania and the rest of the mid-Atlantic is prompting some same-sex couples to go out of state — not just to marry, but permanently — leaving behind a citizenry that remains divided on who should be allowed to marry.

In the meantime, a lawsuit expected to be argued this summer could put the question to a federal judge.

Langley and Despo aren’t likely to leave Pennsylvania, though the commonwealth won’t recognize their union.

 They’ve thought about it, however.

Langley is an elected member of Meadville City Council. If he didn’t have that position, he’d likely leave for New York, even if it meant an hour’s commute to his job in Meadville, he said.

“We just want to share a life together and make that commitment to each other,” Langley said.


Divided opinion

The church where Langley and Despo married, St. Peter’s Episcopal in Westfield, N.Y., has a small congregation that dates to 1830. About 50 people come to services on winter weekends.

The Rev. Virginia Carr notes the church sits on the village green in a little lakeside community. It’s a bucolic setting, perfect for weddings.

Carr’s done seven same-sex weddings in the past year and just one wedding for a heterosexual couple. Most of those same-sex couples came from Pennsylvania, attracted to St. Peter’s by word of mouth.

The church has not advertised in Pennsylvania that it will marry same-sex couples. But, Carr said, she might start. “Access to God should be available to all people,” she said.

In the Episcopal Church, bishops determine whether same-sex weddings will take place in their dioceses. Then, each pastor can decide whether to perform same-sex weddings.

The church requires that at least one of the couple be a baptized Christian.

Apart from the church's view of same-sex marriage is the state's. Pennsylvania law prohibits same-sex marriages in the Commonwealth and does not recognize same-sex marriages performed in other states.

There are 22,336 same-sex couples living in Pennsylvania, according to an analysis of Census data by the Williams Institute at UCLA. Of them, 3,288 couples said they were married.

A Franklin and Marshall poll conducted last spring found that 53 percent of Pennsylvanians believe those couples should be allowed to marry. That’s up from 42 percent who supported gay marriage in 2009, the pollsters noted.

Some of those who oppose gay marriage do so stridently, though efforts to amend the state Constitution to define marriage as a union between a man and woman have repeatedly stalled in the Legislature.

The latest version of the bill, House Bill 1349, authored by Republican Rep. Daryl Metcalfe of Butler County, was referred to the state government committee last May.  That bill is cosponsored by Republican representatives Brad Roae of Crawford County, Michele Brooks of Crawford and Erie counties, Greg Lucas of Crawford and Erie counties and Fred Keller of Union County. The language in the bill is modeled after Florida’s marriage protection amendment, which was approved by more than 60 percent of that state’s voters in 2008 and has been upheld by the Florida Supreme Court.

Proponents of same-sex marriage have been making gains in the battle of public opinion, by framing the argument with terms like “marriage equality” and “freedom to marry,” said Thomas Shaheen, vice president of police for the Pennsylvania Family Institute, which has long opposed gay marriage. Shaheen said, despite the polls, opponents believe that if there were a ballot referendum, in the privacy of the polling booth voters would reject same-sex marriage.

Even opponents of gay marriage concede the state Constitutional amendment would not provide a shield to prevent a federal judge from ruling that same-sex marriages ought to be legal, said Shaheen.


Court challenge

 In Pennsylvania, the American Civil Liberty Union’s challenge on the state’s ban on gay marriage is set to be argued before U.S. District Court Judge John E. Jones this summer.

“We don’t know what Judge Jones is going to do,” said Witold (Vic) Walczak, legal director for the ACLU in Pennsylvania. But a ruling could come down as soon as September, he said. If the decision is favorable, gay marriage could be legal in Pennsylvania this fall.

“Everything has to fall in place, but I could write that script,” he said. “This could be the year.”

The ACLU’s case, Whitewood v. Wolf, was filed on behalf of 21 lesbian or gay Pennsylvanians. The lead plaintiffs, Deb and Susan Whitewood, who have been in a relationship for 22 years and have two teen-aged daughters, obtained a civil union in Vermont. In June, they went to the Washington County courthouse to get a marriage license and were refused, according to the lawsuit.

Their lawsuit was filed in July after the U.S. Supreme Court struck down part of a federal law defining marriage as a union between one man and one woman.


Tired of waiting

Walczak said he is becoming “cautiously optimistic” that same-sex marriage will become legal across in the country in a few years.

But for some same-sex couples, life is too short to wait for the courts.

Erin and Amy Terrizzi were legally married in New York, then married again in a ceremony at a Unitarian Universalist congregation in Erie.

Erin Terrizzi took Amy’s last name, a decision that flustered a worker at the Department of Motor Vehicles.

Erin presented a Social Security card with her name and asked that her driver's license bear her new last name. After a few tense moments and a consultation with a supervisor, her license was changed.

The couple wants to move from Erie, a decision influenced by the poor job market there, said Erin Terrizzi.

But rather than move elsewhere in Pennsylvania, they will likely go to Maryland, where their marriage will be legally recognized. That recognition is important because it will make it easier for the couple to adopt children, Erin Terrizzi said.

“You can say, ‘What’s a couple of years,” she said. “But at the same time, it’s a couple of years. We want to start a family. We don’t want to wait.”

John Finnerty reports from the CNHI Harrisburg Bureau for The Meadville Tribune and other Pennsylvania newspapers owned by Community Newspaper Holdings Inc.