One-Way Trip | Opinion | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

One-Way Trip

A federal lawsuit may complete the inevitable, if arduous, journey for marriage equality

Fredia and Lynn Hurdle may have the cutest first-date story in the history of federal law. And it's about to be entered as evidence against Pennsylvania's legalized bigotry.  

Back in 1990, Fredia was a Greyhound bus driver newly assigned to the Erie-to-Pittsburgh route, with a slew of small towns in between. "I stopped in Meadville, where Lynn was getting on," recalls Fredia, now 49. "She was kind of cute, but she had all these bags. And then she got me lost when I asked for directions."

"She wanted to get to New Castle," counters Lynn, 43. "What she didn't tell me is that she had to stop in New Wilmington first."  

Since that uncertain beginning, the two have been journeying together for 22 years. They fell in love, raised Lynn's daughter together, sheltered other family members and an elderly friend. They've shared a home in Crafton Heights, and a 2009 commitment ceremony in which Lynn took Fredia's last name. 

And yesterday, their life took yet another turn. They are among two dozen plaintiffs in a federal lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union against the state of Pennsylvania, demanding marriage rights for same-sex couples.

"We've lived a married life," Fredia says. And now they want "the acknowledgement of being married."

Other plaintiffs include mothers and fathers, wives and widows, military vets and Fortune 500 execs. But they have one thing in common, the lawsuit contends: Pennsylvania's same-sex marriage ban "undermines [their] ability to achieve their life goals and dreams, threatens their mutual economic stability, and denies them ‘a dignity and status of immense import.'" 

What opened the floodgates was a landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision, United States vs. Windsor. Writing for a 5-4 majority, Justice Anthony Kennedy ruled that the federal Defense of Marriage Act — which barred federal benefits from being conferred upon same-sex couples married in their own state — was unconstitutional. "[T]he principal purpose and the necessary effect of this law are to demean those persons who are in a lawful same-sex marriage," Kennedy wrote. "And it humiliates tens of thousands of children now being raised by same-sex-couples. "

But the ruling's reach didn't quite match its rhetoric. While it confers a host of federal benefits on couples in states that allow same-sex marriage, it has little impact in states like Pennsylvania, which bar such unions. If Lynn Hurdle had been taking the Greyhound north toward Buffalo back in 1990, she and Fredia might now live in a state where each would be entitled to Social Security benefits if the other passed away. They might not have to carry documents granting each other power of attorney, in case one of them ends up in a hospital emergency room. (Here in Pennsylvania, Fredia chuckles ruefully, "You never leave home without it.")

The ACLU suit argues that if federal officials were wrong to pass DOMA, Harrisburg was wrong to pass its own gay-marriage ban in 1996. "[T]he Supreme Court has made clear that the law cannot ... give effect to private biases," it contends.

While Kennedy's ruling compels the federal government to honor same-sex marriages, it doesn't require states to offer them. But Vic Walczak, the state ACLU's legal director, says momentum is on his plaintiffs' side. 

 "I think Kennedy just couldn't quite wrap his mind around the concept that marriage is a constitutional right," he says. But the ruling "comes awfully close to affirming what we need," and "we're hoping to ride the wave of public opinion [in favor of marriage equality]. When this case is ripe for Supreme Court review in three or four years, it wouldn't surprise me if Justice Kennedy gets there."

For now, while Kennedy's ruling brought justice for some couples, it has cast new light on the injustice faced by others. Now a same-sex couple in Pennsylvania isn't just treated differently from the straight couple just across the street; it's also treated differently than a same-sex couple just across the border.

As Lynn Hurdle puts it, "I want to be able to live in the city that I love, and marry the person that I love." And 22 years after she climbed aboard Fredia's Greyhound, it's about time Pennsylvania welcomes them home.