Stage set for vote on gay marriage ban

In Capitol, more than 200 foes rally against amendment after its approval by Senate panel

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HARRISBURG -- Minutes after a Senate committee approved a bill to amend the state constitution to ban same-sex marriage yesterday, Democratic legislators from Pittsburgh and Philadelphia vociferously attacked the proposal, calling it "disgraceful, morally wrong and unnecessary."

Senate Bill 1250, which is meant to bolster the state's 1996 Defense of Marriage Act, which already prohibits same-sex marriage, "is disheartening and discriminatory," said Sen. Jim Ferlo, D-Highland Park.

"It's marriage mischief -- an attempt to enshrine bigotry in the state constitution," he told an angry crowd of 200 protesters gathered in the Capitol rotunda.

"Politicians always want to get into your wallet, but now many politicians, some Democrats as well as Republicans, want to get into your bedroom."

Other opponents of the constitutional amendment included Rep. Dan Frankel, D-Squirrel Hill, and Democratic Sens. Vincent Fumo of Philadelphia and Connie Williams of Delaware County.

"When the basic rights of any group are threatened, then no one's rights are safe," said Mr. Fumo, amid echoing chants of "Stop this bill! Stop this bill!"

"Freedom is at risk in the bill," said Mr. Fumo, whose South Philadelphia district includes considerable numbers of gay and lesbian voters. "It's possible this legislative body could embed discrimination in our constitution by taking away the rights of a group of people based on their sexuality."

The rally began just after the Senate Appropriations Committee voted 18-8 to send the ban to the full Senate, which could vote as soon as today or tomorrow. The appropriations panel had to vote on it because putting the required public notices about the proposed amendment in newspapers could cost the state as much as $1 million in 2008-09.

To succeed, legislation to amend the constitution to ban gay marriage must be approved in both this legislative session and the next, which begins in January. If it is, it could be on the November 2009 statewide ballot.

The bill is primarily supported by conservative Republican senators, including John Gordner of Columbia County, but some Democrats voted for it yesterday, including John Wozniak of Cambria County and Barry Stout of Bentleyville.

"We are not trying to interfere with anyone's rights or benefits," said Mr. Gordner. "We are trying to preserve the sanctity of marriage between one man and one woman."

At a Senate hearing last week, the Marriage Protection Coalition of Greater Pittsburgh supported the proposed amendment, saying it "will protect the traditional family from being discriminated against or displaced, due to increasing alternative marriage-like lifestyle behavior in society."

The amendment would ban same-sex marriages and "their functional equivalent." Many people take that to mean civil unions between gay or lesbian couples, which are allowed in some states. Mr. Gordner was concerned that a judge might permit same-sex couples to join in civil unions unless the law also banned "functional equivalents" of gay marriage.

Sen. Sean Logan, D-Monroeville, voted against the bill, saying he feared that an elderly man and woman who live together without getting married could suffer loss of pension benefits, or might be barred from visiting each other in the hospital because they weren't husband and wife. He also was concerned that younger same-sex couples might not be able to adopt children.

With conservative Republican senators a power in the Senate, the bill could pass. Then it would go to the House, where it likely will be acted on first by the State Government Committee, chaired by Rep. Babette Josephs, D-Philadelphia, who strongly opposes it.

Asked if she can kill it in committee, she said, "We'll see.''


Bureau Chief Tom Barnes can be reached at tbarnes@post-gazette.com or 1-717-787-4254.


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