A proposed state constitutional amendment aimed at eliminating any possibility of gay marriage is creating opposition from people of many stripes ... not least from straight seniors and those trying to curb domestic violence.
The amendment, House Bill 2381, defines a valid marriage in the state as strictly "between one man and one woman." In a pre-emptive shot at civil unions, it also bars government bodies from creating or recognizing "a legal status identical or substantially equivalent to that of marriage."
Statewide, the Center for Lesbian and Gay Civil Rights and the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania, both in Philadelphia, are leading the fight against the bill, which is scheduled to go before the General Assembly's appropriations committee during the week of April 24 and then to the House for a full vote.
Among the amendment's sponsors are Representatives Mark Mustio (R-Moon), Tom Stevenson (R-Castle Shannon) and Mike Turzai (R-Bradford Woods), none of whom returned calls for comment.
Opponents say the bill is overkill because it not only discriminates against homosexuals, but also threatens rights now enjoyed by those in common-law marriages.
U.S. Census 2000 estimates there are roughly 240,000 Pennsylvania families ... about 5 percent of the state's 4.8 million households ... made up of unmarried couples. Many of these were grandfathered in as common-law marriages before a new state law abolished this marital arrangement last year. Among them are widowed seniors who never formalized their marital bonds, and who might have no redress if the proposed amendment negates every form of marital arrangement but traditional matrimony.
Seniors' "property, pension and Social Security are possibly at risk because they're survivor benefits," explains Karen Buck, executive director of the Philadelphia-based SeniorLAW Center, a statewide advocacy group that objects to the amendment.
Meanwhile, advocates for domestic-violence victims say that in Ohio, defense attorneys have used similar legislation to successfully argue that unmarried partners shouldn't be protected under domestic-violence prevention laws. They fear that Pennsylvania's amendment would similarly erode protections here.
"There will be a long-term repercussion of people afraid to seek court protection" if the constitution is amended, says Amy Sousa, policy manager of the Pennsylvania Coalition Against Domestic Violence in Harrisburg. Should the amendment pass, Sousa predicts that it will result in "a total backpedaling of domestic-violence protection work done over the past 30 years."
Michael Geer, president of the Pennsylvania Family Institute, which led the drive for the amendment, disagrees. "[T]his bill impacts only same-sex [marriage], polygamy and civil unions," he says. The measure, he adds, is intended to close a constitutional loophole that may invite challenges to the state's existing Defense of Marriage Act, which has forbidden gay marriage since 1996.
Larry Frankel, legislative director of the state's ACLU, is counting on broad-based opposition to beat the bill back. So far, nearly 11,000 amendment foes from across the state have signed petitions circulated by groups belonging to the Value All Families Coalition.
"This is not a fight just by GLBT [gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered] or the traditional civil-rights groups," says Frankel. "I'm cautiously optimistic."
However, state Rep. Dan Frankel (D-Squirrel Hill) is less so.
"In my view, if it actually gets to the House floor for a vote," he says, "it would pass."
In order for the amendment to be added to the state constitution, it has to pass the General Assembly in two consecutive sessions and gain simple majority approval in a statewide referendum. Opponents of the constitutional change fear the ballot question will be ready in time for the presidential election in 2008, pushing conservative voters to the polls as a similar measure did in Ohio in 2004.
Rep. Frankel, who penned an April 1 editorial in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette denouncing the bill, has since heard from a few hundred constituents; all but a handful oppose the bill, he says.
"They understand the significance of this bill," he concludes. "[T]hey don't want the state to be defined as intolerant and one that has written discriminatory language into its constitution."