By Maryclaire Dale
NORRISTOWN, PA.: Five same-sex couples obtained marriage licenses Wednesday in a suburban Philadelphia county defying a state ban on such unions, but the governor’s spokesman said the local officials lack the power to suspend state law.
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 asking a federal judge to overturn the law.
Before that suit played out, officials in the affluent and increasingly Democratic county signaled this week that they would grant same-sex licenses.
They could find themselves in court nonetheless if Republican Gov. Tom 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 isn’t legally valid in Pennsylvania, but she said it’s not her place to intervene.
“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.”
Nils Hagen-Frederiksen, Corbett’s spokesman, added that officeholders “are constitutionally required to administer and enforce the laws” but did not immediately say whether any challenge was in the works.
Democratic Attorney General Kathleen Kane, though, has said that she will not defend the ban, leaving Corbett’s office to tackle the ACLU lawsuit.
The risk of a court fight down the road did not stop the eight women and two men who picked up marriage licenses.
“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 has the state’s third-largest population. D. Bruce Hanes, the register of wills, said he wanted to come down “on the right side of history and the law.” His decision came weeks after the U.S. Supreme Court struck down parts of the Defense of Marriage Act.
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.
“It was expected that I would marry a man, have children and have two cars in the suburbs,” Kurland said. “I think it’s wonderful for young people today to be able to be who they are.”
Two other women had considered applying for a license Tuesday, but they changed course after their lawyer talked to the ACLU, which raised the likelihood of a legal challenge.
Bruce Castor, a Republican county commissioner and a former prosecutor, said opponents could ask Kane’s office to challenge the same-sex licenses in court.