New Federal Lawsuit Challenges Pennsylvania’s Ban On Same-Sex Marriage

Families counterprotest a National Organization for Marriage rally at the Harrisburg Capitol in 2010.

The ACLU has filed a federal lawsuit challenging Pennsylvania’s law banning same-sex marriage, hoping to bring marriage equality to the last northeastern state to offer no recognition for gay couples. The suit represents 23 plaintiffs, including 10 couples, one of the couple’s two teenage daughters, and a same-sex widow. Four of the couples were legally married in other states, but their relationships are not recognized under Pennsylvania law.

Pennsylvania is actually one of the few states that never passed a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage, only passing a state law in 1996 and nothing since. Still, the lawsuit will function similarly to those challenging amendments in Nevada, Hawaii, and Michigan, asking the federal court to weigh in on state law. Quoting the Supreme Court’s recent overturning of the Defense of Marriage Act, the complaint argues that the anti-gay law denies same-sex couples “a dignity and status of immense import.” The suit also points out that Pennsylvania judges routinely grant adoptions to same-sex couples.

Still, the law creates a burden on these families. Plaintiffs Helena Miller and Dara Raspberry legally married in Connecticut but told the Washington Post that “by moving to Pennsylvania, we effectively became unmarried.” When Miller gave birth to their daughter Zivah in May, they had to hire a lawyer and pay to undergo second-parent adoption proceedings in order to ensure Raspberry could be legally recognized as Zivah’s parent. They also had to hire a lawyer to secure powers of attorney for each other when Raspberry underwent a major surgery. All of these benefits would have been automatically guaranteed if the couple still lived in a state that recognized their marriage.

Despite Pennsylvania’s conservative legislature and governor, recent polls have shown that a majority of Pennsylvanians support marriage equality. Even a majority of Republicans in the state support some form of relationship recognition in the state — though in the wake of the DOMA decision, only marriage would ensure these families could access all the benefits of marriage equally. Pennsylvania offers absolutely no protection to the LGBT community, but lawmakers have introduced a sweeping nondiscrimination bill to try to correct that.