HARRISBURG, Pa. — A lawsuit filed Tuesday started Pennsylvania down a years-long path toward a courthouse showdown over the state’s ban on same-sex marriage.
Attorneys with the American Civil Liberties Union and Philadelphia law firm Hangley Aronchick Segal Pudlin & Schiller, representing 10 couples and one surviving partner as plaintiffs, predicted the lead defendant would not go down easily.
“I don’t think [Governor] Tom Corbett is going to lay down on this,” said Witold “Vic” Walczak, legal director of the Pennsylvania ACLU. “We are expecting a trial in this case — a relatively short discovery period, and then a trial.”
Mr. Corbett confirmed Mr. Walczak’s prediction.
“Clearly the Supreme Court of the United States said it’s up to the states to decide what to do” regarding gay marriage, he said. “A lawsuit to overturn what is the law of Pennsylvania I don’t think is going to carry much weight because it’s going to be determined by the courts of Pennsylvania.”
The case will be handled by an appointed federal judge in the Middle District of Pennsylvania, based in Harrisburg. It is the first federal case to be filed challenging a state gay marriage ban since the Supreme Court decided last month, in what is known as the Windsor decision, that the federal Defense of Marriage Act was unconstitutional.
That 5-4 decision found that the federal act infringed on the states’ rights to decide who could marry, by refusing federal recognition of same-sex marriages that are legal in 13 states and the District of Columbia.
The ACLU’s lawsuit asks the federal judiciary to take a further step, arguing that Pennsylvania’s act — which defines marriage as between a man and a woman — deprives same-sex couples of their constitutional due process right and equal protection rights. To deny someone a right accorded to another, according to the complaint, the state would have to show that there is a rational, legitimate government interest in doing so.
“Neither tradition nor moral disapproval of same-sex relationships or marriage for lesbian and gay couples is a legitimate basis for unequal treatment of same-sex couples under the law,” according to the complaint.
The plaintiffs want the court to force Pennsylvania both to accept same-sex marriages forged in other states, and to allow gay couples to marry in the state.
“Everyone in our world recognizes us as a true family: our friends, our family, our church family, the teachers at the kids’ school, they all recognize us as a true family. And we feel that it’s time that the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania did so as well,” said Deb Whitewood, 45, of Bridgeville, one of the plaintiffs who attended a news conference in the Capitol Rotunda in Harrisburg.
Opposition promptly criticized the ACLU’s goals and methods.
“There are those of us who believe that marriage should remain the union of husband and wife,” said Michael Geer, president of the nonprofit Pennsylvania Family Institute, “because the union of one man and one woman uniquely brings forth children and uniquely benefits children in society.
“To allow a judge to make a determination on an issue of such significance or import, rather than going through the deliberative political process … seems unwise and undemocratic, frankly,” he said, noting that other states have decided on their definitions of marriage through legislation or ballot initiatives.
He predicted that many organizations would push elected officials to defend the act and would get involved in the court fight.
Mr. Walczak said he expected the case to come to trial in the next year or two, then likely move to the U.S. 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals, regardless of which side prevails. It could then potentially go to the Supreme Court, he said.
The Block News Alliance consists of The Blade and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Rich Lord and Kate Giammarise are reporters for the Post-Gazette.
Post-Gazette staff writers Monica Disare and Karen Langley contributed to this report.
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