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District Judge race heats up over same-sex marriage issue

Magisterial District 05-2-35 would seem an unlikely place for a debate over gay marriage. The East End judicial district is a liberal bastion and former magisterial district judge Hugh McGough presided over one of the state’s first gay marriages.

Judge McGough was elected to Common Pleas Court in 2015, and his temporary replacement, Dan Butler, is now running for a full six-year term. But although District Judge Butler has been endorsed by the LGBT-friendly Steel City Stonewall Democrats, his position on same-sex marriage has come under scrutiny because he doesn’t perform marriages.

District Judge Butler said he has not done marriages of any kind since a 2003 New Year’s Eve service prompted him to miss time that night with his family while his son was in a hospital intensive care unit. His son died less than a month later. “My wife and I haven’t had a New Year’s Eve party since,” he said. “[And] one deal we made was that with all the volunteer work I do, I wouldn’t do weddings.

“If I did marriages, would I do a gay marriage? Yeah.”

District Judge Butler is also a board member of the Orthodox Union, an umbrella group of socially conservative Jewish congregations that has stated it is “emphatic in defining marriage as a relationship between a man and a woman.”

District Judge Butler said he was affiliated with the union through his work on youth issues. “I think my being Orthodox has a lot to do with” the marriage questions, he said. “But my branch of Orthodoxy is live and let live.”

District Judge Butler’s rivals include Abbie Campsie, a therapist who said that “somebody in my position is better equipped to de-escalate a situation” involving neighborhood disputes. (Ms. Campsie is the race’s only non-lawyer, although she notes that district judges receive training and it’s common for non-lawyers to hold the position.)

Defense attorney Mark A. Sindler previously worked in the state Attorney General’s office and says he’s “the only candidate who has both prosecuted and defended individuals on both sides of the aisle.”

Matthew Wholey is a longtime prosecutor who focused on gun and animal cruelty cases for the Allegheny County District Attorney’s office — and whose family’s famous Strip District fish store “is a multicultural melting pot. I’ve been fortunate enough to work with people of all colors and cultures, and I’d bring that sensitivity to the office.”

District Judge Butler said “We’ve heard that each of the three have been” raising the marriage issue with voters, though all three candidates deny doing so. But although all said they respected Judge Butler’s reasons for not officiating weddings, they said doing so was part of the job.

“I think it’s difficult to look at your constituents and say, ‘I’m willing to do most of the job, but not that part,’” is how Mr. Sindler put it.

Duquesne University law professor Bruce Ledewitz said judges were not required to perform weddings, and that many judges do not.

Sam Hens-Greco, who chairs the city’s 14th Ward Democratic committee, said he’d been “peppered with inquiries” from residents about the marriage issue. He said it was hard to trace the origins of the concern: “Once a buzz starts happening, it’s hard to know where it starts.”

Mr. Hens-Greco sharply questioned District Judge Butler at a Sunday forum held by the 14th Ward Independent Democratic Club. Noting that “the race for this office has been more controversial than many in past years,” the club endorsed District Judge Butler, and Mr. Hens-Greco said he was pleased to hear District Judge Butler would perform same-sex marriages — if he performed marriages at all.

“If he’s making that statement publicly,” Mr. Hens-Greco said, “I appreciate that.”

Chris Potter: cpotter@post-gazette.com