What does the DOMA ruling mean for LGBT Pennsylvanians?

Equality Forum 2013
(Credit: Rikard Larma/Metro)

Pennsylvania advocates agree: Wednesday’s U.S. Supreme Court ruling striking down the Defense of Marriage Act and declaring legally married same-sex couples deserve equal rights to benefits afforded under federal law is one for the history books.

“This is an historic moment,” Equality Forum director Malcolm Lazin said.

“It may be quite literally the seminal moment in terms of LGBT civil rights.”

State Rep. Brian Sims, the first openly gay man elected to the Pennsylvania legislature, said the decision “felt as important and epic as I expected it would.”

“It’s going to be the basis for every piece of legislation and litigation going forward from this point on,” he said.

“This is the Brown v. Board of Education for LGBT civil rights. This is the penultimate decision to date on my civil rights.”

But many LGBT Pennsylvanians are wondering to what extent the law will immediately impact their lives.

“I think, in truth, there will be very little immediate change with regard to the laws in Pennsylvania,” Sims said.

“Will people in Pennsylvania who are LGBT be able to get married tomorrow? Absolutely not.”

That’s in part because Pennsylvania has its own law mandating marriages in the state must be between a man and a woman.

“DOMA falling on a federal level does not affect the constitutionality of our ‘mini-DOMA,’” said Angela Giampolo, attorney and chair of the Gay and Lesbian Lawyers of Philadelphia.

“But it does affect the 97 million people in 13 states where gay marriage is legal. As of July 1, they will have access to the 1,138 federal rights that they didn’t have access to yesterday and, unfortunately, that we still don’t have access to here in Pennsylvania.”

That doesn’t mean there’s no possibility of change on Pennsylvania’s horizon – Giampolo said though additional state protections for LGBT rights could take up to seven years to be enacted, legal challenges on a local level are one option through which progress might be more swiftly achieved.

“That’s just literally getting a bunch of gay couples to go to City Hall, apply for a marriage license, get denied, sue and bring that up to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court,” she said.

“Now that we have this opinion, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court would have to look to the U.S. Supreme Court and their ruling on this.”

She said though such challenges wouldn’t be a “slam dunk,” and would require the support of large civil rights groups, “there’s definitely momentum in Pennsylvania to make something like that happen.”

Sims called the fight for LGBT rights “a civil rights battle,” and said, like all civil rights battles, it has many fronts – from popular opinion and culture to legislation and litigation.

“I’m supportive of any efforts anybody in Pennsylvania wants to undertake to challenge the constitutionality of anti marriage laws,” he said.

“Do I think that will be the undoing of those laws? I don’t know. But it’s more than spinning wheels. It’s educating people and potentially turning over laws that are patently discriminatory.”

Despite the uphill battle that may be ahead for those in the Commonwealth, activists said Wednesday was a day for celebration.

“People are like, ‘Why is this a momentous occasion? Why are you crying?,’” Giampolo said after ticking off the laundry list of restrictions still in place on LGBT rights in Pennsylvania.

“It’s because this is the beginning of the end of that era,” she continued.

“It didn’t happen in a sweeping way, but it’s the beginning of the end. There’s no going back. And Pennsylvania is the only state in the Northeast that doesn’t have some kind of antidiscrimination protection for gay people, so that, along with marriage equality, is only a matter of time.”

What about Philly?

While Pennsylvania has few protections for LGBT rights – Lazin said the state is “literally akin to Alabama or Mississippi” – Philadelphia is much more progressive. The city has enacted gender identity and sexual orientation nondiscrimination policies in employment, housing and public accommodations.

The municipal government recently passed a bill extending trans-inclusive healthcare to city employees and recognizes life partnerships.

“It’s basically the strongest thing we can have to validate and recognize same sex couples,” the city Director of LGBT Affairs Gloria Casarez said.

“It affords minimal benefits because there are very few things in the city’s control. It’s not marriage and we can’t step on the state’s toes regarding marriage.”

And when it comes to same-sex marriage, the state does not seem likely to budge – at least not under the tenure of Gov. Tom Corbett.

“The U.S. Supreme Court, in its ruling today, made it clear that it is up to the states to decide issues regarding marriage,” Corbett’s deputy director of communications Janet Kelley said in an emailed statement.

“The Governor has long supported Pennsylvania law that defines marriage as a union between a man and a women.”

Lingering questions

Advocates said the Supreme Court ruling still leaves many questions unanswered, such as what rights, if any, afforded to same-sex couples legally married in other states will be recognized when they return or relocate to Pennsylvania.

“I think there are several interesting questions,” Lazin said.

“One, those people who have been legally married in other states, that have either moved here or are Pennsylvanians who have gone elsewhere to be legally married, they are now entitled to federal benefits. But the question is, are they also entitled to the same recognition when they return to Pennsylvania, and to state marital benefits?”

Casarez called the ambiguity “a very difficult situation.”

“It is an established legal limbo for those couples who are legally married in other states, like myself,” she said.

“Before it didn’t feel like quite as much of a legal limbo, but now that there are federal rights and protections that we may or may not get to cover us as well, it really does feel like a legal limbo.”

By the numbers

13 states have legalized gay marriage.

97M LGBT citizens who live in those states will be directly affected by the DOMA ruling.

1,138 federal rights currently afforded to opposite sex married couples will July 1 be extended to same-sex married couples in the states where such marriages are legal.

1 Pennsylvania is the only northeast state that has no antidiscrimination protections for LGBT citizens when it comes to hate crimes, employment, housing or public accommodations.


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