Opponents and allies of a bill that proposes amending the state constitution to define marriage as between one man and one woman got a chance to tell lawmakers how they felt April 10. Much of the debate at the state Senate judiciary committee hearing focused on a portion of the bill that critics say could extend the measure's reach to all types of domestic partnerships.
The hearing, one of three such forums being held across the state, featured testimony from 14 speakers (five in support of Senate Bill 1250 and nine opposed). Approximately 200 people filled the Gold Room of the Allegheny County Courthouse to hear the testimony; the majority were against the bill, making themselves known through applause.
Opponents of the amendment argued that it was discriminatory, bad for business and unnecessary. Pennsylvania already has a "Defense of Marriage" law, which prohibits same-sex couples from being married.
"The styles of marriage and the morals of marriage have changed over the millennia," said Pastor Janet Grill, of St. Andrew Lutheran Church. "Marriage is not a static concept."
Supporters of the bill countered that a constitutional amendment is necessary to prevent legislators or judges from altering the state's position on same-sex marriage.
"It is not within our human power to redesign or convolute the dynamics of God-given natural laws of human existence," said Sharon Capretto, president of the Marriage Protection Coalition of Greater Pittsburgh. "Divine laws cannot be changed, altered or redefined."
Much of the legal nitty-gritty conversation was hung up on the wording of the amendment, which reads: "No union other than a marriage between one man and one woman shall be valid or recognized as marriage or the functional equivalent [italics added] of marriage by the Commonwealth."
Widener University (Harrisburg) professor Randy Lee assured the Senate that the "functional equivalent" phrase would not stop the Commonwealth from giving same-sex or unmarried partners any individual benefits. It would simply prevent Pennsylvania from conferring whole-hog the benefits of marriage onto some other type of union.
"You cannot put a picture of corn on a can of peas and sell it as corn," Lee explained.
In Pennsylvania -- as is common across the United States -- married couples are entitled a wide array of benefits, such as hospital visitation privileges and protection from some estate taxes.
Unmarried couples can attain some of these rights through documents such as wills, but the functional equivalent language would prevent lawmakers from creating a different type of partnership that could automatically receive all of the same benefits.
Additionally, "unmarried couples ... are routinely advised to enter into a web of documents to legally protect themselves and their children," says University of Pittsburgh professor Anthony Infanti. "These documents, when viewed as a whole, are arguably intended to provide these unmarried couples with the functional equivalent of marriage.
"Surely, no legislator would wish to vote in favor of a constitutional amendment that might prevent individuals from securing basic legal protections for themselves and their families."
Infanti also argued that the language was more vague and indefinable than Lee was allowing, and could, as a result, lead to a loss of individual benefits.
"How can you put [the amendment] before voters and expect them to understand [the language] if, after hours here today, you all can't understand what it means?" he asked the panel.
Some of the bill's detractors argued that just by demanding those hours of debate, the measure constituted a failure of government, a failure of priorities.
"Instead of Senate Bill 1250, I strongly urge the Pennsylvania Legislature to enact Senate Bill 761, legislation currently awaiting action in this very committee, which would take Pittsburgh's anti-discrimination protection on the basis of sexual orientation, gender identity and gender expression and extend it to the entire state," Pittsburgh City Council President Doug Shields said.
Others promoted Senate Bill 280 -- which would make it illegal to discriminate on the basis of a person's marital status -- as being more worthy of the Senate's attention.
A proposed amendment must pass the General Assembly in two successive legislative sessions before finding its way onto a statewide ballot for referendum -- which means the earliest that citizens could get a crack at this one would be November 2009.
State Sen. Jim Ferlo, whose district includes parts of Pittsburgh, suggested at a pre-hearing press conference that the real intent of the bill's backers was to get a "hot-button issue" on the ballot to draw out conservative voters, possibly holding it for the 2010 gubernatorial race.
"I hate to be so crass ... but the fact of the matter is: That's what this is about," he said. Ferlo is a not a member of the Senate judiciary committee.
This is not the first attempt by the General Assembly to put forth a marriage amendment. In 2006, Ferlo spoke on the Senate floor against a House bill that he said "reflects pandering and political posturing on a hot-button, emotionally charged issue."
Two of the 17 state senators who introduced Senate Bill 1250 are Democrats: Raphael Musto (Wilkes-Barre area) and Richard Kasunic (Fayette County and parts of Somerset, Washington and Westmoreland counties).
In an interview before his statement last week, Ferlo said the bill's supporters in the Senate "have a shallow, opportunistic view of what their constituents want. That's not the way to show leadership."
And of his fellow Democrats who helped introduce the bill he added, "I've done more than spoken to them. Their arms are like pretzels."