The issue of same-sex marriage is headed back to the state legislature, as opponents prepare to introduce legislation on Jan. 24 for a state constitutional amendment limiting marriage to heterosexual couples.
Foes of same-sex marriage, such as Michael Geer, president of the Pennsylvania Family Institute (which is leading the push for the bill), say this is a pre-emptive strike against any state court broadening the definition of marriage beyond a single man and woman.
"We think the definition of marriage, if it's going to be decided on, should be decided on by the people," Geer says. Hence an amendment, which goes to a popular vote if two successive sessions of the state's General Assembly approve it. It doesn't even require a governor's signature.
Proponents of legal gay unions, like Scott Safier, co-chair of Steel-City Stonewall Democrats, a GLBT political activist group, say the move is both unnecessary and harmful, plus a distraction from more pressing issues.
"It all seems to be part of a strategy to stigmatize a percentage of the population," says Safier. "We're fighting to protect what little rights we enjoy."
The amendment, in its pre-bill draft form provided by Geer, is one sentence long: "Only a marriage between one man and one woman shall be valid or recognized as a marriage in this Commonwealth, and neither the Commonwealth nor any of its political subdivisions shall create or recognize a legal status identical or substantially equivalent to that of marriage for unmarried individuals." Geer claims 80 legislators are already bill co-sponsors.
"Obviously we intend to fight it," says Safier, whose group is part of a statewide coalition trying to rally legislators against the bill. They are led by the Center for Lesbian and Gay Civil Rights, a Philadelphia-based advocacy group.
Gay people have been explicitly prevented from marrying in Pennsylvania since passage of the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA). But court OKs for gay marriage in Massachusetts and elsewhere in the past decade "have suggested our DOMA would not withstand a court bent on legalizing different definitions of marriage," says Geer.
He labels gay marriage "an untested social experiment," lacking years-long studies of its effect. The harm, he says, is in "the message it sends into the future ... that the gender, the different sexes, make no difference" in parenting. He points to "mounds of data" on the value of moms and dads together.
"The vast majority of evidence," counters Safier, "[says] it's the quality of the parenting, not the sexual orientation of parents, that is important."
Of course, GLBT groups also want marriage for its many concrete benefits, from child-custody protections to health-care decision-making rights. Geer says his amendment would prevent the state or state-funded institutions from offering benefits to the partners of same-sex employees, such as the health-care insurance that the University of Pittsburgh began offering last year.
But the amendment wouldn't prevent private companies from offering such benefits, nor "prevent individuals from petitioning government for those benefits," Geer explains -- as long as they weren't awarded based on marital status.
It took gay Pitt employees more than seven years to win health-care benefits from the school.
Safier wonders at the timing of the amendment's introduction. "There is no pending court case in Pennsylvania" that might re-define marriage, he says. He also believes the amendment will adversely affect the state's 250,000 unmarried heterosexual couples just as much as the 21,000 same-sex partners, as counted in the 2000 U.S. Census: The amendment, he notes, outlaws things that are "substantially equivalent to marriage."
"I'm even thinking, 'Why do I want to stay here if the state is going to treat me like a second-class citizen?'" Safier says.
But as with all debates about gay rights, the issue seems to boil down to conservative fears about the sexuality of pets. As Geer summarizes his group's proposal: "No same-sex marriage. No plural marriage. Can't marry your motorcycle or your dog or anything."