SEQ CHAPTER \h \r 1The definition of marriage has again become an issue as state lawmakers debate legislation that could threaten the liberties of unmarried gay and lesbian couples in Pennsylvania.
On June 6, the state House of Representatives passed a constitutional amendment—referred to as the Marriage Protection Amendment—that could potentially outlaw many of the privileges currently enjoyed by unmarried couples in Pennsylvania, such as domestic partner and health insurance benefits.
After passing in the state House by a 136-61 vote, the original version of the bill was then amended by the Senate Judiciary Committee on June 13.
The original language of the proposed legislation defined marriage as the union of one man and one woman and “neither the Commonwealth nor any of its political subdivisions shall create or recognize a legal status identical or substantially equivalent to that of marriage for unmarried individuals.”
That condition meant that civil unions or domestic partnerships would not be legally recognized in Pennsylvania.
The Senate Judiciary Committee approved the bill passed by the House but eliminated the reference to “equivalent” bonds like civil unions or domestic partnership
ships, which are not currently recognized under Pennsylvania law.
That stripped-down version of the bill was passed by the full Senate June 21 by a vote of 38-12.
According to Scott Safier, co-chair of the Steel City Stonewall Democrats, although the amended version still defines marriage as a union between one man and one woman, the language does not appear to threaten benefits currently available to unmarried couples.
Stacey Sobel, executive director of the Center for Gay and Lesbian Civil Rights, told Out that supporters of the amendment to ban same-sex marriage were displeased with the changes made in the Senate and want the measure passed in its original form.
In order for the bill to pass, House members now must either accept the amended version passed by the Senate or hold out for its more restrictive version. Any action on the measure must take place before the legislature leaves for summer recess in late June or early July. (Editor’s note: The information in this report was current as of Out’s June 28 midday release deadline.)
The stalemate was a cause for optimism among opponents of the proposed amendment, Sobel said.
“Although anything is possible,” Sobel said, she believes that any extra time opponents can gain from stalling passage of the legislation is extremely valuable.
“The more time we have to educate people, the better chance we have to address the issues surrounding this unnecessary legislation,” Sobel said.
Sobel pointed out that it must also pass through two consecutive legislative sessions, or two calendar years, before it could reach voters as a ballot referendum.
In addition to the discriminatory nature of the amendment, Sobel said the timing of the proposed legislation could frustrate many voters. She pointed out that the amendment was introduced at a time when the state’s fiscal year budget had not yet been finalized and issues like property tax reform and a minimum-wage increase were being ignored to debate the marriage amendment.
Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell similarly criticized state lawmakers June 22 for sidelining the minimum-wage issue in favor of the “horrible” and “superfluous” marriage amendment.
“I think the people of Pennsylvania deserve better from our legislators,” Sobel said. “Every time a state amends a constitution in such a way that takes away liberties, citizens should be concerned.
“The Center for Lesbian and Gay Civil Rights is very concerned that members of our legislature are ready and willing to take away the rights and privileges of some Pennsylvanians,” Sobel added. “We are dedicated to fighting any legislation that takes rights away from any citizen.”
The American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania is also taking a firm stance in opposition to the Marriage Protection Amendment.
Larry Frankel, legislative director of the ACLU of Pennsylvania, said opposition to the amendment has been one of the organization’s top priorities this year.
Like Sobel, Frankel has been working closely with the Value All Families Coalition, an organization whose goals are aimed at supporting and maintaining equality for gay and lesbian Pennsylvanians.
In a statement released by the ACLU, Frankel noted how the proposed amendment could have an adverse impact on not only same-sex couples but any couple whose relationship is not defined as a marriage in Pennsylvania. Frankel pointed out that access to health insurance could be impaired, and family or medical leave could be denied if the Marriage Protection Amendment is passed.
According to Frankel, proponents of the legislation are citing the need to protect marriage from activist judges as the reason for making the amendment a priority.
In the ACLU release, Frankel noted that the legislature is reacting to a judge’s ruling that Maryland’s law banning same-sex marriage was a form of sex discrimination and violated the state constitution’s equal rights provisions.
“A court decision from another state is no reason to create second-class citizens in Pennsylvania,” Frankel noted. “Our elected officials should act to protect and nurture all of Pennsylvania’s families and not be persuaded by those special interests who think they own the right to say who is a family.”
Although proponents of the Marriage Protection Amendment have faced fierce opposition at the legislative level from groups like the ACLU and the Center for Lesbian and Gay Civil Rights, they have also encountered opposition from everyday Pennsylvanians whose lives would be affected by the legislation.
Dana Elmendorf, facilitator for the state chapter for MarriageEqualityUSA and a member of the Value All Families Coalition, told Out that she got involved with efforts to block passage of the amendment because she wanted to find a practical way to turn her anger into action.
Elmendorf said she is concerned that there is a feeling of apathy among members of the gay and lesbian community regarding marriage equality.
“I think often there is a feeling that this is a losing battle,” Elmendorf said. “So ‘why bother?’ Nothing could be further from the truth, as we have found. Even in the states where amendments like these have passed, the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force found that the gap by which they passed greatly narrowed after intense education on our real lives and knowledge of the issues was put out there.”
Elmendorf said she feels gay men and lesbians can become “more proactive in terms of educating people about the reality of their lives,” which includes the lack of 1,138 federal rights and protections afforded to married people, she noted.