On the Matter of Marriage
Photography by Dani Fresh
Words, both big and small, hold a lot of power. It’s packed in there between each letter, invisible to the naked eye but quite apparent to the mind’s eye as it shapes our decisions and opinions. The words we choose mean something, each one of them. We can choose to carelessly toss them around, but when civil rights and social standards are in question, such carelessness can be dangerous.
Words chosen to discuss the current marriage battle throughout America vary depending on to whom you talk. When discussing the recent American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) lawsuit, Whitewood v. Wolf, questioning the Pennsylvania Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) – which was signed into law by Governor Ridge in October 1996 and states that “marriage shall be between one man and one woman. A marriage between persons of the same sex, which was entered into in another state or foreign jurisdiction, even if valid where entered into, shall be void in this Commonwealth” – the debate gets heated.
There’s a stark difference in meaning between the phrase “marriage equality” and the phrases “gay marriage” or “same-sex marriage.” And, ultimately, the meaning of the word “marriage,” in a legal sense, is what that battle boils down to. How do we define it? How does this affect the nation?
Some, like Louie Marven, the executive director of the LGBT Center of Central Pennsylvania, say they’re working towards “marriage equality,” a phrase that depicts a battle against the oppression of a minority group whose love is currently not considered the same as the love between members of the majority.
“‘Marriage equality’ speaks more to the fact that this is a movement as opposed to its own unique thing, which is what kind of is implied by ‘gay marriage,’” says Marven. “Like it’s a different kind of marriage.”
Others, like the Pennsylvania Family Institute, stand in support of the current Pennsylvania DOMA, insisting that it “simply defines marriage as it has always been defined across Western Civilization.” Using terminology like “gay marriage” in its argument, the Pennsylvania Family Institute separates it from the historically recognized heterosexual marriage.
“The lawsuit claims that there is no governmental interest in limiting marriage to one man and one woman,” says Michael Geer, Pennsylvania Family Institute president, in a press release issued on July 9 in regards to Whitewood v. Wolf. “This is clearly not true: government recognizes the uniqueness of marriage between one man and one woman because it is an institution that benefits society in a way no other relationship does.”
As it currently stands, 16 states and the District of Columbia recognize same-sex marriages. Eight of those states legalized it by means of state legislature, including Delaware, Hawaii, Illinois, Minnesota, New Hampshire, New York, Rhode Island and Vermont. Popular vote made the decision in Maine, Maryland and Washington. And court decisions prompted the change in California, Connecticut, Iowa, Massachusetts and New Jersey. Illinois Governor Pat Quinn just signed the state’s marriage bill into law November 20, a bill that will go in effect June 1, 2014.
According to a 2011 Williams Institute study, there are about 9 million LGBT individuals in America – that’s lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender – which means that approximately 3.5 percent of Americans self-identify as LGBT. The same study shows that 2.7 percent of Pennsylvanians self-identify as LGBT, and the 2010 U.S. Census reports over 33,600 same-sex couples in the state.
Whitewood v. Wolf
Some of those couples, with the help of the ACLU, the ACLU of Pennsylvania and volunteer counsel from the law firm of Hangley Aronchick Segal Pudlin & Schiller filed a federal lawsuit arguing that Pennsylvania’s own Defense of Marriage Act violates the fundamental right to marry and the Fourteenth Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause.
“It’s a lot more than legally speaking,” says Rebecca Melley, part of the plaintiff trial team from Hangley Aronchick Segal Pudlin & Schiller. “The primary aspect is the love and the family and the commitment that marriage represents to people who are in committed relationships who want to build families and want to show that commitment publicly and who intend to spend their lives together and raise families together. Along with that comes the state recognition of that important status and the benefits that flow from that and protections that flow from that.”
Some of those benefits include having hospital visitation rights, being named the decision maker for your spouse if he or she is incapacitated and automatically gaining parental status for any child born into the marriage without having to go through a time-consuming and expensive second parent adoption process.
John Stapleton, another member of the Hangley Aronchick Segal Pudlin & Schiller trial team recognizes the importance of marriage and its overwhelming affect on the daily American lifestyle.
“The status of marriage really impacts everything that every person does during the day. There are over 1,000 federal laws impacted by it. There are 600 to 700 laws in Pennsylvania impacted by marital status,” he explains.
The 25 plaintiffs involved in the case come from all over the state of Pennsylvania and include a range of individuals with different ages, ethnicities, religions and occupations. Some of the couples have already married in other states, and others are holding out hope that they’ll marry in their home state of Pennsylvania. Twenty-two of those individuals are in committed relationships, one is a widow and two are children of one of the couples involved.
The plaintiffs dismissed some of the original defendants, including Governor Tom Corbett and Attorney General Kathleen Kane – who issued a statement saying that she would not defend Pennsylvania’s DOMA because she “believe[s] it to be wholly unconstitutional.” Kane received support from some who believe she made a powerful statement and criticism from others who believe she refused to do the job she was elected to do.
The defendants listed on the amended complaint include Michael Wolf, secretary of the Department of Health; Dan Meuser, secretary of the Department of Revenue; and Donald Petrille, Jr., register of wills and clerk of orphans’ court in Bucks County.
“While we originally named the governor and attorney general, and we believe we have very strong arguments and reasons why we included them, the fact that the state didn’t want them in and wanted different defendants in was kind of no moment to us, just as long as there were state officials,” says Stapleton.
“If there are three certainties in life, this case is addressing them all, and it’s love, death and taxes,” Stapleton continues. “The Department of Health has two functions: one is that it creates the forms for marriage licenses…and similarly creates the forms for death certificates. And then, with respect to the Department of Revenue, similarly, same-sex married couples living in Pennsylvania as residents trying to file the personal income taxes are really told by Pennsylvania that they have to check off a box that they’re single, even though they’re not. That again comes back to the basic dignity that these folks are being denied.”
As of print in mid November 2013, U.S. Middle District Judge John E. Jones III denied the defendants’ motions to dismiss. Melley says that the plaintiffs and legal team are aiming for a Spring 2014 court date, but she expects pressure from the defendants to lengthen the discovery process and push the court date back further.
“We filed our suit on July 9. To this day, we have not heard any basis offered by any of the state officials for the law,” says Stapleton. “Rather, they have certainly moved to dismiss on the grounds of Baker v. Nelson, but that was really a jurisdiction argument saying the matter didn’t belong in federal court. They have not stated any reason for this discrimination, and that’s really what the trial will be all about.”
While Pennsylvania’s marriage laws stand in question, individuals on all sides can agree that it’s more than just a legal fight.
The LGBT Center of Central Pa. is a volunteer-driven community space that opened its doors in the summer of 2012, after holding office space on the third floor of St. Stephen’s Episcopal Cathedral on Front Street in Harrisburg for a number of years. The mission of the center is “to create common ground for the LGBT community and allies in Central Pennsylvania by providing services through educational, cultural, and community activities that foster wholeness.” The center is a place for the community to come together, and Marven considers those gatherings to be an essential part of the healing process that he finds beneficial to the movement.
“Sometimes we allow ourselves to feel like exclusively political sites as opposed to recognizing that we need to take care of ourselves and our communities. There’s a lot of harmful messaging out there about our very selves, and self-care is so important,” says Marven. “I think that’s something that I think of in terms of leadership, but I also think about it simply in terms of being. OK, so we won this political battle, and now we’re just on to the next one, but what is the cost? How are people being harmed? How are people being healed? How are communities supporting their most vulnerable members?”
As far as marriage equality is concerned, Marven sees the battle as one to be won in the courts through lawsuits like Whitewood v. Wolf.
“In some states, it’s been put up to a vote of popular opinion. I just feel it’s totally inappropriate, and a lot of advocates do,” explains Marven. “It’s the idea that a majority of the population would have the ability to vote on minority rights. So, if you’re taking the position that these are civil rights, which we do, then civil rights are inherent; they’re not able to be voted on. Which is strange to say because we love voting, but is it appropriate and is it legal for the broad population to vote on civil rights of a minority population?”
Marven considers the battle for marriage equality just one of many battles for the LGBT community and its allies.
“There’s this sort of brain-drain idea,” he explains. “You want to make your state a good place to live for a broad cross-section of people, so people with skills and talents are choosing to live elsewhere because they are treated more like people.”
The Pennsylvania Family Institute, which is a “nonprofit, nonpartisan research and education organization,” takes the opposite stand on the matter, noting that it “has long stated that policy decisions related to the definition of marriage should be made by the people and not the courts – through the political process and not by unelected judges. For the ACLU to ask the federal courts to redefine marriage short circuits the democratic process on an issue of ultimate importance.”
The organization opened its doors in 1989 with a mission “to strengthen families by restoring to public life the traditional, foundational principles and values essential for the well-being of society.”
Geer declined to participate in this feature when approached for an interview, but according to the group’s website, it works to “strengthen families and restore time-tested Judeo-Christian principles to our culture and government.”
“Much like the environmental-impact studies required for major construction projects, Pennsylvania Family Institute provides family-impact testimony and research papers when significant issues confront the legislature in our state capitol – all with the intent to defend and uphold the family as the foundation,” says the organization in its Strategy for Strong Families subsection on the group’s website. “From education issues to tax, divorce and welfare reform to sanctity of life issues, Pennsylvania Family Institute is the one full-time professional voice representing the family in Harrisburg.”
Marven and Geer clearly hold conflicting ideas on the definition of marriage, but they both hold a concern for the way citizens are involved in the legislative, judicial and social practices of the state.
According to the Pennsylvania Family Institute, “no plan to bring positive, lasting change on behalf of families will be effective if it does not involve we the people – the everyday citizens upon whom, in our system, the mantle of authority rests.”
“I’m always interested in talking about the work that has to be done beyond the political work. Just because laws are changing doesn’t necessarily mean people are going to be having equal experiences,” says Marven. “Someone still could go to a hospital and could be treated poorly. There could be legal recourse, but I think we still have a lot of culture and social work to do. There should not be any question.”