ACLU lawsuit takes on Pennsylvania’s same-sex marriage ban

Equality Forum 2013
(Credit: Rikard Larma/Metro)

The American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania on Tuesday filed a federal lawsuit in an attempt to overturn Pennsylvania’s ban on same-sex marriages.

The suit, which is also being handled by volunteer attorneys with the law firm of Hangley Aronchick Segal Pudlin & Schiller, was brought forth on behalf of 21 Pennsylvanians who either wish to get married in the state or want the Commonwealth to recognize their out-of-state marriages.

“The couples in this lawsuit are united by love, family and commitment, which are the cornerstones of marriage,” ACLU of Pennsylvania’s legal director Witold Walczak said in a statement.

“They are married in every sense of the word, except one – under Pennsylvania law. Today’s suit seeks to give Pennsylvania’s same-sex couples the freedom to marry.”

The lead plaintiffs in the suit are Deb and Susan Whitewood of Allegheny County, who have been in a committed relationship for 22 years.

Deb and Susan in 1993 had a holy union ceremony at their church and changed both of their last names to Whitewood, a combination of their surnames.

They in 2001 entered into a civil union in Vermont, but are still treated as “legal strangers” under Pennsylvania law.

“We only want what every married couple wants – to express our love and commitment in front of friends and family and the security and protections that only marriage provides,” Deb Whitewood said in a statement.

“Our life is built around our relationship and the family we have made.”

Pennsylvania’s Defense of Marriage Act has language nearly identical to that of the federal DOMA recently deemed unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court.

The lawsuit alleges Pennsylvania’s refusal to marry same-sex couples or recognize their out-of-state marriages violates both the fundamental right to marry, as well as the Fourteenth Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause.

“We believe that this law cannot stand under any level of scrutiny because excluding same-sex couples from marriage does not further any legitimate government interest. It serves only to insult and hurt lesbian and gay couples and their families,” said Mark Aronchick of Hangley Aronchick Segal Pudlin & Schiller in a statement.

“We have filed this case today because these families deserve the security of knowing that, in times of crisis, their loved ones will be protected and provided for.”

Other Pennsylvania plaintiffs include five same-sex couples who wish to be legally married, two of which hail from Pittsburgh, two from Philadelphia and one from State College.

Four additional couples who wed in other states but whose unions aren’t recognized in Pennsylvania have also signed on, as well as Philadelphia widow Maureen Hennessy, who lost her spouse after being committed to her for 29 years but is not entitled to protections afforded to widows under state law.

“As the cradle of American liberty, it is shameful that Pennsylvania denies some families the dignity and respect that can only come with marriage,” ACLU of Pennsylvania executive director Reggie Shuford said in a statement.

“It’s wrong that the state where these couples live, work and raise families treats them as second-class couples.”


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