This week, the Register of Wills and Orphans' Court Association of Pennsylvania hosted its annual conference in Washington, Pa. to discuss improvements in the administration of their offices and collaborative efforts to serve the citizens of its members' counties.
But the topic of discussion at the conference changed when Montgomery County Register of Wills D. Bruce Hanes began appearing in news headlines across the state for his decision to approve same-sex marriage licenses, despite a state law that effectively bans the marriages.
Hanes announced that he would begin accepting applications for marriage licenses from same-sex couples on Tuesday. Since then, more than two dozen same-sex couples had applied for and received their licenses in the county.
On Thursday, the last day of the conference, the Association issued a resolution stating that it would uphold the state's law and that its members should not issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples.
"I don't have a response to that," Hanes said when asked about his reaction to the resolution.
Hanes is a member of the Association, but did not attend the conference. He says he's not trying to be a rebel; he feels he's just doing the right thing.
"The Association can say whatever they want. It's a free country," he said. "I don't feel like a lone reed, I just feel like I'm doing the right thing."
Not everyone agrees that he is.
The Pro-Life Coalition of Pennsylvania protested the issuance of same-sex marriage licenses by holding a pray-in at the county building earlier today. The organization's president, Mike McMonagle also issued a call for Montgomery County District Attorney Risa Vetri Ferman to charge and arrest Hanes for violating state law.
Ferman says Hanes' decision to defy the law sets a dangerous precedence but she does not plan to arrest him any time soon.
"You have individuals that are coming to the courthouse and they are criticizing, appropriately, elected officials for refusing to follow the law; everyone from the Attorney General of Pennsylvania to a low-level county official, and they are defying the law and saying we’re going to do whatever we want and we’re going to ignore the law. In essence, they’re asking me to do the same thing, by filing criminal charges not supported by the law and the courts. Arresting somebody is within my jurisdiction, but arresting somebody for acts that don’t constitute a crime would be a violation of my oath," she said.
Hanes said earlier this week that his decision to grant same-sex marriage licenses was made after a legal consultation and because he knew that he wouldn't get any backlash from state Attorney General, Kathleen Kane, who is refusing to defend the state law in court.
After the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the Defense of Marriage Act last month, the American Civil Liberties Union decided to challenge Pennsylvania's law by filing a suit, Whitewood v. Corbett, on behalf of 12 same-sex couples seeking to be married. The suit has invoked the question of whether a state's law against same-sex marriage will trump the federal decision on DOMA and has prompted state, and now county officials to declare their position on the issue.
"My analysis is focused on what do I have the authority to do if anything, and so those are the issues that my staff is looking at. What authority other individuals have is not for me to say. The Register of Wills and other county officials can’t change the laws of the Commonwealth just because they say so. We’re a country of laws, we’re a nation of laws, and as an elected official I believe they are bound to follow the law as it exists. And if you object to it and if you want to change it there are processes in place to go ahead and do that. But to just defy the law and say we’re not gonna follow laws that we don’t like, sets a very dangerous precedence."
Bucks County Register of Wills Donald Petrille, Jr., declined to comment on the matter as he is named as a co-defendant in the Whitewood v. Corbett case.
According to the complaint, Petrille and Washington County Register of Wills Mary Jo Pokins were named as defendants because they refused to issue marriage licenses to two same-sex couples that are listed as plaintiffs in the suit.
Register of Wills for Chester County and member of the Pennsylvania Register of Wills Association Terri Clark, said she is sticking with the law.
"Well at this point and time the Constitution and the state law states that same sex marriage is not legal. When I was elected by the voters of Chester County I took an oath to obey and uphold the constitution and the laws of commonwealth. So at this time my office will not be issuing any licenses to same-sex couples."
According to it's website, the Register of Wills and Orphans' Court Association's members serve as Registers of Wills and Clerks of Orphans' Courts in 67 counties in Pennsylvania.