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GLBT Rights: State legislature again trying to ban gay marriage

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The attempt to amend Pennsylvania's constitution against gay marriage is back in Harrisburg, and it's just as unnecessary as it was when it failed in 2006, say proponents of same-sex unions.

The amendment states, "No union other than a marriage between one man and one woman shall be valid or recognized as marriage or the functional equivalent of marriage by the Commonwealth."

"That would be the first time we'd actually write discrimination into the state constitution," says Stacey Sobel, executive director of Equality Advocates Pennsylvania, which is fighting the amendment.

The bill has 17 co-sponsors -- one more than the previous version -- although earlier local co-sponsors Sen. Jane C. Orie (R-North Hills) and Sen. John Pippy (R-Moon) haven't yet put their names on the effort. But among this version's 17 co-sponsors are, for the first time, two Democrats, including Richard Kasunic of Dunbar, Fayette County, who did not return a call for comment.

The other two local co-sponsors are Sen. Bob Regola (R-Greensburg), prime sponsor of the failed 2006 effort, and Robert Robbins (R-Meadville).

"Right now the main driving issue ... is activist courts constantly placing a challenge on what marriage is," says Tom Hower, Regola's chief of staff. Regola "feels it's important to codify [the prohibition] constitutionally."

Indeed, says Robbins' chief of staff, Mike Hengst, "In other states, the courts have basically thrown out the laws."

But neither legislative aide would specify any possible harm to traditional marriage should same-sex marriage be allowed. "Children benefit from having both female and male role models," Hower asserts.

That's untrue and "irrelevant to the issue," counters Sobel. "Most of the credible studies have shown that there is absolutely no impact on the child" from having two parents of the same gender. Indeed, both the American Medical Association and the American Academy of Pediatrics are in favor of same-sex partners adopting kids. According to the 2000 Census, 5.7 percent of America's 72 million kids already live with unmarried partners of unspecified gender.

Plus, Sobel adds, there are a large number of privileges for married people under Commonwealth law currently denied to unmarried partners, from inheritance rights to tax breaks.

There's also a danger of straight couples being harmed by the overly broad law, says Sue Frietsche, senior staff attorney at Women's Law Center, in Downtown. Frietsche says the prohibition against "the functional equivalent of marriage" could take away current domestic-partner health benefits or prevent courts from issuing Protection From Abuse orders between unmarried straight couples, as it did for a while after Ohio passed similar rules. The center would be against such an amendment anyway, she adds, since it denies a segment of the population legal rights and "feeds into an atmosphere of bigotry and prejudice against gay people ..." in a state that lacks legal measures to protect gays against discrimination in employment, housing or public accommodations.

To change the state constitution, an amendment must be passed in two consecutive legislative sessions and then be approved by voters. In Ohio and other states, such ballot questions have drawn conservative voters to participate more heavily in elections. The earliest possible vote could come in 2009, but passage by the state House is unlikely under the current Democratic majority. Opponents won't speculate openly, but it's possible that the bill is being pushed now to bring out conservative voters during a presidential election year in which the right wing is reportedly less inspired to participate in high numbers. The move may also be designed to get an early start on the 2010 or 2012 ballot.

Any amendment defining marriage "is not going to stop gay and lesbian people from having children [and] raising children," Sobel concludes. "So the real question is, if you believe in protecting families, are you going to protect all families or just some families if you don't like who the parents are?"

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