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Standing on Ceremony: Same-sex couples can marry in New York, but what's in store once they return to Pennsylvania? 

"For same-sex couples in Pennsylvania, marriage means legal uncertainty."

click to enlarge Rev. Renee Waun will be taking a busload of couples to Niagara Falls for a wedding in October. - PHOTO BY HEATHER MULL
  • Photo by Heather Mull
  • Rev. Renee Waun will be taking a busload of couples to Niagara Falls for a wedding in October.

Rev. Renee Waun has been uniting same-sex couples for more than a decade within the traditions of the Unitarian Universalist Church. But those unions have meant nothing legally. Although her faith supports equality, same-sex marriages aren't allowed in the states where she practices: Ohio, West Virginia and Pennsylvania.

But when New York state passed a bill allowing same-sex couples to obtain marriage licenses, Waun saw an opportunity. She has organized a bus trip to Niagara Falls next month for local same-sex couples to get legally married.

"The couples I know say [marriage] is something they yearn to do, just like any other couple," she says. "They want to take the next step, start the next chapter of their relationship. It's a public statement. Why can't they have this?"

The trip, co-sponsored by the Westmoreland LGBTQ Interfaith Network and the Unitarian Universalist Ministers Association of Pittsburgh, will leave from the Ross Township park-and-ride lot on Oct. 7 and head to Niagara Falls, N.Y. Participants will receive a marriage license and -- after a ceremony and reception -- return to Pittsburgh Oct. 9.

It is the first time Waun will perform a same-sex marriage recognized by a government. New York's new law "changes it for me," she says, "because you know it's legally significant." 

At least until they return home.

 

Waun says New York's rules for same-sex marriage, which went into effect July 24, are somewhat easier to navigate than those in the other six states (and Washington, D.C.) that issue licenses. Any town or city clerk can issue a license; there's only a 24-hour waiting period (some states require 72 hours), and no medical exams are required.

Coming back to Pennsylvania, however, makes things more complicated.

"Often times [an out-of-state marriage license] gives people a false sense of security. They believe they have certain legal protections they don't have," says Tiffany L. Palmer, a Philadelphia-based attorney who specializes in non-traditional family formation. "For same-sex couples in Pennsylvania, marriage means legal uncertainty."

Since 1996, the federal Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) has defined marriage as being between a man and a woman, prohibiting same-sex marriages from being recognized by the federal government. DOMA is being challenged in court, and under President Barack Obama, the Justice Department is no longer defending it. But marriage-equality advocates are fighting the battle at the state level, too. Pennsylvania, like many other states, has its own version of DOMA, which states that same-sex marriages ratified in other jurisdictions "shall be void" within the commonwealth.

That constitutes a serious disadvantage for same-sex couples.

In 1997, the U.S. General Accounting Office identified more than 1,000 federal laws "in which marital status is a factor," including the automatic power to make medical decisions for a partner, and the right to collect Social Security should a partner die. Same-sex couples also can't file joint tax returns, and if one partner is covered on the other's health insurance, Palmer says they must pay income tax on the value of the benefit.

In Pennsylvania, meanwhile, Palmer estimates that the state specifies at least 600 additional, separate rights for married couples. Since same-sex couples are not entitled to automatic inheritance rights, for example, an individual is taxed 15 percent on the value of an estate if his or her spouse dies. 

 "The legislature, regardless of ideologies or political views, is so completely out of step with how people feel," says state Sen. Jim Ferlo (D-Highland Park). Last year, Ferlo co-sponsored a bill that would have changed the state's definition of marriage to include same-sex couples. Given that state government is under Republican control, Ferlo says he doesn't believe the bill "will see the light of day."

Ferlo says he's working on a civil-union bill, which may parallel similar bills in other states. While he's not quite sure yet what the bill would look like, he envisions a civil union as being "the same as a so-called marriage between a man and a woman" -- only without using the term "marriage" itself.

 "I've talked to many Republicans and Democrats who would never, for whatever reason … vote for marriage equality," Ferlo says. Still, "Many of those same people say … we should do civil unions, or some license that provides equity and equality."

And then there's divorce. While it's possible to drive to a state like New York for a marriage license over a weekend, same-sex couples usually have to live in a state for six to 12 months before they can be divorced there. And divorce rights in Pennsylvania remain a "gray area" for same-sex couples, Palmer says; two trial courts have rejected such divorce petitions so far. 

Changing that, says Evan Wolfson, must begin with "making the case to actual Pennsylvanians that denying [equality] to loving, committed couples here at home hurts their families while helping no one." Wolfson, a Squirrel Hill native, is executive director of the national Freedom to Marry campaign. 

While federal law gets much of the attention, Wolfson says, succeeding at the state level is paramount.

"Members of Congress come from somewhere; they're not sitting in Washington throwing down thunderbolts. They hear from constituents in their district," Wolfson says. "Marriage is not governed by Congress. You get married in a state, with a license issued by a state."

But changing state law, he says, doesn't begin with "worrying about the governor. It's about talking more effectively to their neighbors. … It's about engaging the people in Pennsylvania with stories and personal acts for them to come to a better understanding of who gay people are in Pennsylvania and why marriage matters to us."

 

In the meantime, local same-sex couples have few options. The City of Pittsburgh offers a domestic-partnership registry for same-sex and opposite-sex couples. It offers some government recognition of a relationship, but has little legal weight.

"It seems pointless to me to get married until it is recognized by the [federal] government," says Mount Washington resident Loni McCartney. She and her partner "do not need to be married for others to know our commitment to each other."

Rev. Waun, who is leading the trip to New York, acknowledges that when gay or lesbian partners approach her, "Some want the same ceremony as [a heterosexual marriage], while others say, ‘We aren't a straight couple.'" 

For her part, Waun says the spiritual aspect is what's most important. The Unitarian Universalist Church is based on seven liberal principles, which include equality and acceptance. But marriage is "not a decision to be taken lightly."

In fact, only one couple had signed up for Waun's bus trip by press time. If she can't get 10 couples signed up for the trip by Sept. 17, it will be canceled. 

Even if that happens, Waun says, she'll try again in the spring.

"Marriage is not a special right," she says. "It's a civil right."

 

New York Wedding Bus Trip, Oct. 7-9, Niagara Falls, N.Y. Registration deadline Sept. 17. Information, registration and prices are available at newyorkweddingbus.wordpress.com or by emailing maurineminister@gmail.com

 

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