Illegal Pennsylvania gay marriage licenses show stir in 'battleground states'

One county official in Pennsylvania is handing out marriage licenses to gay couples, even though it's against state law. But four states could legalize gay marriage in the next few years.

By , Staff writer

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    This image shows a placard at a Montgomery County office in Norristown, Pa., Wednesday. Two women were married in a religious ceremony Wednesday near Philadelphia after getting a same-sex license from Montgomery County officials defying a state ban.
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On Tuesday, an official in Pennsylvania's Montgomery County made a decision that he said would put him "on the right side of history and the law." He decided that he would issue a same-sex marriage license to anyone who wanted it.

In Pennsylvania, same-sex marriage is illegal, but Register of Wills Bruce Hanes said in a press release that he made his "own analysis of the law." He also noted that the state's attorney general announced on July 11 that she would not defend that state's gay marriage ban against a legal challenge by the American Civil Liberties Union. At least one same-sex couple has already been married in Montgomery County.

In the end, little may change in Pennsylvania. Gov. Tom Corbett (R) is likely to make sure the state's gay-marriage ban is defended in court, and Mr. Hanes's protest might not survive legal scrutiny. But the ferment in Pennsylvania is indicative of a brewing fight in gay marriage's "battleground states." With Delaware, Minnesota, and Rhode Island all legalizing same-sex marriage this year, advocates on both sides of the issue are preparing to spend millions of dollars in a handful of states that could follow their lead.

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Hawaii, Illinois, New Jersey, and Oregon are at the top of the list, legal experts say. But there is unlikely to be a stampede toward the acceptance of gay marriage, despite the Supreme Court's two landmark rulings this summer.

"It is unlikely that all states will adopt same-sex marriage in the foreseeable future," says Jack Tweedie, director of children and families program at the National Conference of State Legislatures in Denver. "The political solution is a state-by-state one, and it will be slow."

Currently, 13 states and the District of Columbia recognize same-sex marriage, while 37 states ban or do not recognize same-sex marriage. No one expects to see any movement in the South or parts of the Great Plains or inland West. However, a switch may be more realistic in states that already have civil unions for same-sex couples, or have ballot initiatives for legalizing same-sex marriage moving forward.

  • Before adjourning in May, the Hawaii Legislature failed to vote on several same-sex marriage bills and is expected to reconvene for a vote in January.
  • Gay-marriage proponents in New Jersey see an opportunity for overturning last year’s veto of a bill to legalize same-sex marriage by Gov. Chris Christie (R); the override would require 27 Senate and 54 House votes, where Democrats rule 24 to 16 and 48 to 32, respectively.
  • A gay marriage bill passed the Illinois Senate in February and had the backing of Gov. Pat Quinn (D), but was delayed by the House until the fall. In addition, the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois and the gay rights group Lambda Legal filed a motion in Cook County Circuit Court earlier this month, arguing the state's gay marriage ban is unconstitutional.
  • In Oregon, a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage is on the books, but a referendum to overturn it will take place in November 2014 if it can collect 116,000 signatures. If it is successful, it will come the first state to overturn such a ban.

Intensifying the debate is the fact that, in all four states, polling shows that the majority of residents support some form of same-sex marriage.

Freedom to Marry, a gay-rights group based in Washington, is spending more than $6 million to push same-sex marriage in all four states by 2014, and it plans to raise an additional $2 million by the end of the year. The organization then plans to turn its efforts to six more states by 2016. Possible contenders, the organization says, are Arizona, Colorado, Michigan, Nevada, New Mexico, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Virginia.

For its part, the American Civil Liberties Union hired Republican political strategist Steve Schmidt, who worked for President George W. Bush and was a senior adviser to Sen. John McCain's 2008 presidential campaign, to lead an effort to gain Republican support in these states. The organization says it will spend nearly $10 million on such efforts during the next four years.

Proponents of traditional marriage say efforts to turn back these bans will fail because voters have spoken.

Gay advocates are “hugely overplaying their hand. These are states where gay marriage advocates have been saying for months, if not years, that gay marriage is inevitable and they’ve made no progress,” Thomas Peters, a spokesman for the National Organization for Marriage (NOM), based in Washington, told Reuters earlier this month.

In April, NOM said it would spend $250,000 to defeat any Republican legislator in Illinois or New York who voted to support same-sex marriage bills. 

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