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Same Sex, Different Day

On gay marriage, GOP can't tell it straight

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Here's something you probably didn't know: Just because Harrisburg Republicans want to prevent gay marriage, that doesn't mean they want to take away anyone's rights. Domestic-partner benefits? Same-sex couples adopting children? To the GOP, it's all A-OK.

Or so it would seem from a May 5 hearing of the state Senate's Appropriations Committee.

The committee had a single item on its agenda: whether to allow the full Senate to vote on a Constitutional amendment barring same-sex marriage "or its functional equivalent." The state already has such a ban, but the Senate vote would be the first step toward putting that language in the state Constitution.

Democrats were worried about unintended consequences. Monroeville Democrat Sean Logan, for example, noted that at previous hearings, adoption counselors testified that changing the law could play havoc with child-placement, preventing same-sex and other non-married couples from adopting.

"We do not want to take away any existing rights that gay and lesbian partners have," assured state Sen. John Gordner (R-Bloomsburg).

The obvious question is: So why bother? What's the fun of being a fundamentalist if you can't protect children from the gay menace? Do conservatives think adult marriages need protection from gays ... but adopted kids don't? No wonder Logan was suspicious.

Not to worry, replied Gordner. In the case of Devlin v. City of Philadelphia, he noted, the state Supreme Court ensured that existing same-sex rights were legally permissible, as long as they didn't require creating a legal union that was the "functional equivalent of marriage." Gay-rights activists were worrying for nothing, Gordner said; Devlin assured that same-sex benefits "can be preserved even with something like our current [anti-gay-marriage] law."

Let's ponder the irony here. Conservatives want this amendment in the first place, supposedly, because they're afraid some "activist judge" will give gays the right to marry. Just minutes after citing the Devlin ruling, in fact, Gordner said the amendment was intended "not to allow the judiciary ... to impose [civil unions or] something else." But when Democrats worry the bill might have a larger effect than that, Gordner points to ... a court ruling.

Philadelphia Democrat Vince Fumo, at least, wasn't fooled. The Supreme Court ruled on Devlin based on the laws at the time, he noted. Amending the state's Constitution, he said, would change the law.

"When you enter this language into the Constitution, you're begging to overthrow Devlin, and everything else," Fumo said. After all, "a lot of proponents of this amendment ... want to do that" -- like the people Fumo said were wielding "Sodomy's against the Bible" signs outside the Senate chamber.

And remember: The Devlin is in the details. The plaintiff in Devlin was a Christian conservative who opposed giving domestic-partner benefits to city employees. If the Constitution were amended, won't someone like Bill Devlin try again?

Gordner noted that 18 other states had amended their Constitution with language "similar to" that being proposed in Pennsylvania. "The only thing I can do is point to those other 18 states" where courts have upheld existing benefits anyway. So while conservatives can't trust judges in Pennsylvania, in other words, liberals should rely on judges from other states.

Back in the day, Republicans used to boast about harassing same-sex couples. But as society has become more tolerant, they face a dicey problem: how to cater to homophobic "values voters" without being outed as bigots themselves. So they legislate on the down-low, giving the bigots what they want, while telling the rest of us it doesn't really make a difference.

Fumo and Logan put up a good fight, but the appropriations committee voted 18-8 to move the amendment forward to the full Senate (which was slated to vote on it as this issue went to press). The whole thing took less than half an hour, and almost as quickly, conservatives began trumpeting their big win.

"We call on the Senators ... to not bow to the pressure from a small, but vocal minority who are seeking to redefine marriage and family," bleated Diane Gramley -- who as the head of the American Family Association of Pennsylvania practically defines the phrase "small, but vocal minority."

Not that I have a problem with small, vocal minorities. (Where conservatives are concerned, in fact, the smaller the better.) On some level, I almost respect the people waving their "Sodomy is against the Bible" signs. At least they're honest about what they want. Which is more than can be said for some Senate Republicans.

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