Same-sex marriage in Pennsylvania carries wide repercussions
June 2, 2014 11:40 PM
Pamela VanHaitsma, left, and Jess Garrity, right, of Friendship, are married before District Judge Hugh McGough at his Squirrel Hill office on May 21.
By Kaitlynn Riely / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Jim Devaty and Stephen Miller, together 24 years in September, have spent thousands of dollars during their relationship to secure the types of legal protections that married couples receive automatically.
Last month, a federal judge in Harrisburg ruled that Pennsylvania's gay marriage law was unconstitutional, and the Whitehall couple made the trip Downtown to the Allegheny County Marriage License Bureau the very next day.
They had committed to each other long ago. Now, they wanted the state to recognize their union.
"It's a whole lot more than a piece of paper," said Mr. Devaty as he held their 6-year-old son, Aiden, in his arms, after applying for a license. "It's family security."
Across Pennsylvania, same-sex couples are adjusting to a new reality: being able to access the same protections and rights as any heterosexual married couple. And if the numbers in Allegheny County are any indication, many couples are eager to enjoy the privilege.
Allegheny County issued 213 marriage licenses last Tuesday to couples who had completed the application process the first three days it was possible, according to a county spokeswoman. The week before the ruling, the number receiving licenses the first day of the week was 99.
"I think people are certainly joyous, but people are taking it seriously," said Ted Martin, executive director of Equality Pennsylvania. Last month, 1,000 people tuned into an hour-long conference call the Harrisburg organization held to answer questions about what the ruling meant for couples, he said.
"It was a lot of legal change in 72 hours to sort of absorb," he said.
For same-sex couples in committed relationships, it has been a complicated, often expensive process to secure protections, said Sam Hens-Greco, a Downtown attorney who has been involved in LGBT rights for decades.
For example, married couples who want to put their partner's name on a piece of property can do so easily. But same-sex couples must pay a real estate transfer tax to achieve similar, though usually not equivalent, property protections.
Name changes, a relatively simple process for straight married couples, were a costly and time-consuming process for gay and lesbian couples, Mr. Hens-Greco said. And when it came to inheritance, a surviving partner in a same-sex relationship was required to pay a 15 percent tax, when a surviving straight spouse paid nothing.
"Those burdens are gone," Mr. Hens-Greco said.
The burdens were partly lifted a year ago, when the U.S. Supreme court ruled the federal Defense of Marriage Act unconstitutional. According to the Human Rights Campaign, there are 1,138 benefits, rights and protections provided to marital status by federal law.
The Supreme Court's ruling meant Carey Cummings, a Mt. Lebanon attorney, and her partner, who were married in 2010 in Massachusetts, could file their federal taxes jointly for the first time.
"I'm not sure if we received tax benefit from it, but it made our lives much easier, not having to file separate returns," said Ms. Cummings, who with her partner has a 14-year-old son.
Now that her marriage is recognized here, she plans to amend the family's most recent Pennsylvania tax return. She already had the deed for their home amended. Other rights, she won't be so quick to use herself, she said. For instance, a spouse cannot be compelled to testify against another spouse, she said.
Following the recent ruling, members of a same-sex couple that is married can use the federal Family & Medical Leave Act time to take care of a sick spouse, said Mark Phillis, a Pittsburgh attorney who is a shareholder with Littler Mendelson, P.C.
Kathleen Schneider, a Regent Square attorney, said she always advises clients to prepare a will, but said the ruling now will ensure that assets will be passed on to the surviving spouse.
The ruling also expands the rights of married LGBT couples who want to divorce. Before the ruling, many Pennsylvania couples were "wedlocked," meaning they had gotten married in another state but were unable to obtain a divorce.
"That's been a real burden," she said. Now, those couples can file for divorce in Pennsylvania.
Same-sex couples may have gained marriage rights, but Mr. Martin of Equality Pennsylvania said when it comes to other protections, the state still lags.
Pennsylvania is the only state where gay marriage has been legalized before statewide protections against discrimination have been enacted, said Mr. Phillis.
According to Equality Pennsylvania, 34 municipalities, including Allegheny County and Pittsburgh, have nondiscrimination ordinances. Two bills have been proposed in Harrisburg to expand nondiscrimination protections in Pennsylvania. Mr. Martin said he hopes the gay marriage ruling gives the legislation the momentum it needs to become law. For now, though, Pennsylvania is in an odd position.
"You can now be married in Pennsylvania, but fired for putting your wedding picture on your desk in many parts of the state," he said
He said the organization is looking into three situations in central and southeastern Pennsylvania involving venues that may have declined to hold wedding receptions for gay couples. In Allegheny County, however, the focus has been on new rights enjoyed by newly married couples.
Mr. Devaty married Mr. Miller the evening they picked up their issued marriage license, he said. Although they long had to take steps a married couple would not need to -- such as securing power of attorney rights for each other and doing advanced estate planning -- Mr. Devaty said his mother told him recently that she viewed his marriage as one that started 20 years ago. Now in Pennsylvania, it's official.
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