A hearing on a state constitutional amendment to ban gay and lesbian marriage drew an overflow crowd at the county courthouse yesterday, where it drew passionate responses from supporters and opponents.
"I come to you today as a pastor, a pastor with a desire to testify on behalf of one of the oldest institutions of humanity -- marriage itself," Catholic Bishop David Zubik of Pittsburgh told an audience of more than 200 people in the Gold Room.
"At a time when we should be engaged in doing all we can to strengthen the family, we are facing cultural forces that want to so water down the definition of marriage that it could apply to any human relationship, or to no relationship at all," Bishop Zubik told members of the state Senate Judiciary Committee.
However, in calling on the Legislature to pass the amendment, which would specify marriage as only a union between a man and a woman, Bishop Zubik also called for tolerance.
"Church teaching regarding the dignity of homosexual persons is clear," he said. "They must be accepted with respect, compassion and sensitivity."
But the Rev. Janet Grill, pastor of St. Andrew Lutheran Church, in Shadyside, urged the Legislature to defeat Senate Bill 1250 because, "it is a denial of rights."
"I am not threatened by a variety of families," the Rev. Grill said, noting that her church, which includes a varying number of traditional and nontraditional family structures, thrives because of its diversity.
"I am heartened by the many ways God has given us to use the gift of sexuality for creating intimate, faithful relationships," she said. And from a spiritual standpoint, she added, the church has changed some of its positions over time.
"We no longer condone slavery. We ordain women. We allow divorce," she said. "The power of the Holy Spirit has always been with us, guiding us in a world that is changing rapidly not only in technology, but also in lifestyle."
Senate Bill 1250, which was introduced Feb. 14 by several Republican senators, was voted out of the state Senate Judiciary Committee on March 18, under the condition that more public hearings would be held before it was sent to the full senate.
Next, it goes to the Senate Appropriations Committee, which will hold a public hearing that has not yet been scheduled.
By all accounts, however, the amendment still has a long way to go. The bill must be approved not only by the current General Assembly but also by the 2009-10 Legislature, whose members will be elected in November.
If both the House and the Senate approve it, the bill would have to be approved in a statewide referendum in November 2009.
Standing in front of the Pittsburgh City Council chamber with a number of vocal opponents of the amendment, state Rep. Dan Frankel, D-Squirrel Hill, yesterday vowed to fight the bill every step of the way.
"Assuming it even makes it out of the Senate, I will fight to make sure it doesn't see the light of day," he said.
For Pittsburgh City Council President Doug Shields, the ban will not only cast a pall on the efforts of cities like Pittsburgh that over the years moved to enhance their anti-discrimination laws, it will suppress regional economic growth.
"This is wrong morally and it's wrong economically," Mr. Shields said, noting that if approved, the ban could affect same-sex benefits provisions in the city's labor contracts with a number of unions.
But Deborah Hamilton, a spokeswoman for the group Pennsylvania For Marriage, told members of the Senate Judiciary Committee that state and local governments will still be able to grant same-sex benefits "on some basis other than marriage or an exact equivalent."
In a presenting a position paper on behalf of William Duncan of the Marriage Law Foundation, Ms. Hamilton said it is critical for Pennsylvania to define marriage because states like Massachusetts, Vermont, and New Jersey have successfully re-defined the traditional definition of marriage by approving civil unions.
Through Senate Bill 1250, she said, Pennsylvania, should "reaffirm the legal definition of marriage as the union of a man and a woman," and beyond that, provide a qualification that marriage "is not any other kind of relationship defined differently under a different name but with the equivalent legal status."
City Councilman Bruce Kraus yesterday described such a qualification and the entire move to ban civil unions as a "mark of shame."
He implored members of the Judiciary Committee and the Legislature to stand against the constitutional amendment.
"This need not become your mark of shame, but rather your call to courage," he said. "The courage to overcome fear and injustice; to leave behind moral cowardice."
Karamagi Rujumba can be reached at email@example.com or 412-263-1719.