Allegheny County marries its first same-sex couple amid smiles, tears



District Judge Hugh McGough takes a photograph of each couple he marries, and keeps the portraits in his small Squirrel Hill courtroom. It's a collection of smiling newlyweds, always a man standing beside a woman.

On Wednesday afternoon, it was two smiling women who stood before him.

Jess Garrity and Pamela VanHaitsma, a Friendship couple, said their "I do's" while a small group of quickly gathered friends and family watched. And after he announced the women as spouse and spouse, Judge McGough asked if he could take their picture, too.

Same-sex couple make history with marriage

Pamela VanHaitsma and Jess Garrity of Friendship got a waiver of the normal three-day waiting period from Judge Lawrence O???Toole and became the first gay couple to marry in Allegheny County. (Video by Nate Guidry; 5/21/2014)

Gay couples apply for marriage licenses

Now that Pennsylvania's same-sex marriage ban has been ruled unconstitutional in court, several gay couples in Allegheny County turned out today to apply for marriage licenses. (Video by Nate Guidry; 5/21/2014)

"Normally, I do one picture," he told them. "But let's make an exception."

He snapped two. One, as usual, in front of the U.S. flag. The other, in front of Pennsylvania's.

"We're reveling in the legality of all this right now," Judge McGough said.

For the commonwealth, it was an exceptional moment.

Two days ago, U.S. District Judge John E. Jones III in Harrisburg ruled that Pennsylvania's Defense of Marriage Act was unconstitutional. The ruling, handed down early Tuesday afternoon, meant that Pennsylvania immediately recognized same-sex marriages that were performed in other states. And it meant that in Pennsylvania, same-sex partners could apply for, and would receive, marriage licenses.

The Marriage License Bureau in Allegheny County was closed Tuesday for Election Day, but the county announced shortly after Judge Jones' decision that couples could begin the online application process immediately. By midnight Tuesday, 160 marriage license applications had been filed, a spike from the 29 filed the day before, county spokeswoman Amie Downs said.

A line of four couples formed before the office opened at 8:30 a.m. Wednesday morning, waiting now that they did not have to wait any longer to have their marriage recognized by their state.

Throughout the day, there was a steady stream of couples, men and women who said their relationships had been equal to a marriage and now could be officially defined as one.

By 3 p.m., 64 couples had been processed, Ms. Downs said. The county did not have an immediate breakdown as to how many were same-sex couples.

First in line, and in line well before the office opened, were Ms. Garrity and Ms. VanHaitsma.

Ms. Garrity, a 38-year-old senior research associate for UPMC, and Ms. VanHaitsma, a 35-year-old recent Ph.D. recipient who plans to begin teaching college English, met four and a half years ago, introduced by mutual friends at a birthday party. They got engaged in February 2013 and, in what Ms. Garrity said was a "happy coincidence," they had a noncivil marriage ceremony Saturday at the Union Project in Highland Park.

It was a wedding with all the trappings of tradition: 120 guests, two rings, a wedding dress and a burnt almond torte from Prantl's. When it was over, the two women were married in the eyes of their family, their friends and themselves, but not in Pennsylvania's.

They planned to drive to Maryland, where gay marriage is legal, to make it official. They were both at home Tuesday, recovering from wedding festivities before returning to work, when they realized a trip to Maryland was unnecessary.

They applied online, and 10 minutes after the marriage bureau opened Wednesday, they had in hand a receipt to pick up a valid marriage license next Tuesday, after the state's three-day waiting period and the Memorial Day holiday.

"It was great," Ms. Garrity said. "Smooth, official."

They left the office, saying they'd be back next week, and would try to get married as soon as possible after they received their license. As it turned out, they didn't have to wait that long.

Ms. Garrity and Ms. VanHaitsma, after leaving the marriage bureau, called Judge McGough and Downtown attorney Sam Hens-Greco, who told them they could apply for a waiver for the three-day waiting period.

Couples typically receive waivers if a partner has a serious illness, or is in the military and set to be deployed, or has another extraordinary circumstance. The case of Ms. Garrity and Ms. VanHaitsma was an extraordinary one, since they had just had their wedding Saturday and would have been married had the decision come down earlier, Mr. Hens-Greco said.

"There's no reason to delay any further," he said.

So with Mr. Hens-Greco, they returned to the marriage bureau, this time in search of a waiver.

"Are you nervous?" Ms. Garrity asked her future spouse.

The reply: no.

It turned out there was no reason to be.

In his chambers in the Frick Building on Grant Street, Common Pleas Judge Lawrence J. O'Toole signed the paperwork and wished them good luck, Mr. Hens-Greco said. A few minutes later, back at the City-County Building, Ms. Garrity and Ms. VanHaitsma had their marriage license, the first issued in Allegheny County to a same-sex couple.

From there, it was just a matter of getting to Squirrel Hill. They boarded the 61D bus Downtown, first calling friends and family to let them know the license was in hand.

"They are ready to go, at the drop of a hat," Ms. Garrity said. Her sisters, her sister-in-law, her baby niece and a family friend where there when the two women arrived.

It was a small ceremony, and it was short. There were tears, rings exchanged and vows made. Just after 2 p.m., Judge McGough announced them spouse and spouse.

Throughout Pennsylvania, same-sex couples were visiting courthouses Tuesday and Wednesday to apply for marriage licenses. In Allegheny County, at least one other waiver was requested later Tuesday afternoon, marriage bureau staff said. But it seemed possible that Ms. Garrity and Ms. VanHaitsma were the first same-sex couple to marry in Pennsylvania.

"It's definitely the first one that I've heard about so far," said Levana Layendecker at Equality PA, a statewide LGBT advocacy organization.

And although Ms. Garrity and Ms. VanHaitsma, as well as many other couples, had expressed worry about whether the federal judge's order would be appealed and gay marriage halted, by late afternoon, their fears proved unfounded.

Gov. Tom Corbett said he would not direct the state to file an appeal.


Kaitlynn Riely: kriely@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1707. First Published May 21, 2014 9:58 AM

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