Corbett's Office Responds to Defiance of Pa. Gay Marriage Ban

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    NEWSLETTERS

    Register of Wills D. Bruce Haines issued five same-sex marriage licenses in Montgomery County. NBC10's Deanna Durante finds out if this is officially a legal Pennsylvania marriage or not. (Published Wednesday, Jul 24, 2013)

    The press secretary for Republican Governor Tom Corbett responded to a Pennsylvania county that is defying a state ban on same-sex marriage.

    “Individual elected officials cannot pick and choose which laws to enforce,” wrote press secretary Nils Hagen-Frederiksen in a released statement. “All officials are constitutionally required to administer and enforce the laws that are enacted by the Legislature. Only the courts have the power to declare a law to be unconstitutional and to suspend its effects.”

    At least five same-sex couples obtained marriage licenses on Wednesday in Montgomery County.
    Alicia Terrizzi and Loreen Bloodgood, of Pottstown, were the only couple to marry right away, exchanging vows in a park before a minister and their two young sons.
     
    "We're not setting out to be pioneers. We don't think our family is any different than anybody else,'' said Terrizzi, a 45-year-old teacher. "We've been waiting a long time for this.''
     
    The licenses issued Wednesday in Montgomery County are believed to be the first to same-sex couples in Pennsylvania, the only northeastern state without same-sex marriages or civil unions.
     
    A 1996 Pennsylvania law defines marriage as a civil contract in which a man and a woman take each other as husband and wife, and it says same-sex marriages, even ones entered legally elsewhere, are void in Pennsylvania.

    The American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania filed a lawsuit this month seeking to overturn the law.

    Officials in the affluent and increasingly Democratic county signaled this week that they would nevertheless grant licenses to same-sex couples.

    The county officials and the same-sex couples who marry could find themselves in court if Corbett or other state officials challenge their actions. In other states with same-sex marriage bans, licenses issued by defiant local officials have been voided by courts.
     
    Montgomery County District Attorney Risa Ferman, a Republican, said Wednesday evening that a same-sex marriage license wasn't legally valid under existing Pennsylvania law but "the remedy for issuing an invalid marriage license does not include intervention by the office of the district attorney.''
     
    “The register of wills cannot change the laws of this commonwealth by simply ignoring them,'' Ferman said in a statement. ``If that change comes, it will be through Pennsylvania courts or the Legislature.''

    "Today I feel like a full citizen,'' said Marcus Saitschenko, 52, of Philadelphia, who came to the suburban courthouse with his partner of 22 years, James Goldstein. ``We're just hoping that the state will recognize it.''
     
    Montgomery County is the state's third-largest county in terms of population.
     
    The licenses were issued a day after the county's Register of Wills, D. Bruce Hanes, said he would grant them to gay couples because he wanted to come down ``on the right side of history and the law.''
     
    Hanes said he studied the state constitution and the recent Supreme Court decision that struck down parts of the Defense of Marriage Act before deciding last week to grant same-sex licenses.
     
    “I think the constitution trumps the (state marriage) statute,'' Hanes said. ``This to me is a fundamental civil right.''

    Ted Martin, the executive director of Equality Pennsylvania, said that, to the best of his knowledge, the licenses were the first same-sex marriage licenses ever issued in Pennsylvania.

    Retired marketing executive Ellen Toplin, 60, and partner Charlene Kurland, 69, sought a license Wednesday after 22 years together. Both had previously been married to men, and between them have three children and one grandchild.

    Kurland said there was a time "I didn't even think I could say the word lesbian.''

    She added: "I knew how I felt, but it was not an option. It was expected that I would marry a man, have children and have two cars in the suburbs. ... I think it's wonderful for young people today to be able to be who they are.''

    Two women had considered applying for a license Tuesday, but they changed course after their lawyer talked to the ACLU, which raised concerns about the strategy, given the likelihood of a separate court challenge.

    Democratic Attorney General Kathleen Kane has announced that she will not defend the state's gay marriage ban, leaving Corbett and his legal team to defend the ACLU lawsuit.

    Bruce Castor, a Republican county commissioner and a former prosecutor, has said he had urged Hanes not to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples. He said Kane's office could be asked by an opponent of same-sex marriage to seek a court order stopping Hanes, Corbett's office could go to court to stop it or a county judge could step in.

    The Rev. Craig Andrussier, a nondenominational minister licensed to perform weddings in Pennsylvania, said he married Terrizzi and Bloodgood in a brief ceremony. They have a larger ceremony planned next week with family and friends, he said.

    He called Wednesday's ceremony something ``they can tell their grandchildren about.''

    “I feel great. I feel honored,'' Andrussier said.