HARRISBURG -- A sharply divided Senate Judiciary Committee voted yesterday in favor of amending the state constitution to ban gay and lesbian marriage in Pennsylvania.
Over the protests of Sens. Jay Costa Jr., D-Forest Hills, and Jane Earll, R-Erie, the committee voted 10-4 to approve Senate Bill 1250 and send it to the Appropriations Committee, its next stop before it hits the Senate floor.
Mr. Costa and Ms. Earll said the committee was unnecessarily rushing an important piece of social legislation, and said additional hearings should be held around the state to get people's views. Ms. Earll said the bill was only introduced a month ago, and the committee has spent much more time in the past considering other important social measures.
Sen. John Gordner, R-Columbia, a supporter of the bill, said the Appropriations Committee can hold additional hearings if it wants to. He is hoping for final passage by the House and Senate by June 30, to give enough time to publicly advertise the measure around the state this fall.
The gay marriage ban 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 sessions of the Legislature approve it, the amendment would go to a statewide referendum in November 2009.
"Ultimately, it's the people who must decide whether they want to add this [ban on gay marriage] language to the constitution," said Mr. Gordner. "There will be plenty of time for the public to debate it."
Opponents said they understand what is meant by banning gay marriage -- marriage between two men or between two women. But critics said they're confused by another phrase in the bill, which would ban "the functional equivalent" of gay marriage.
Proponents said that language is meant to prohibit new forms of domestic living arrangements, including "civil unions," which have been legalized in several states.
Opponents said they fear that by banning gay marriage and civil unions, Pennsylvania may also prevent domestic partners in homosexual relationships from making out wills leaving their goods to their partner, or prevent a partner from visiting the other partner in a hospital, or prevent one partner who has a job from letting the partner get health benefits through that employer.
Supporters of the bill said such disruptions wouldn't occur, adding that the bill would just prevent two members of the same sex from being legally joined in marriage or civil unions.
It isn't known when the Appropriations Committee will hold hearings on the bill.
Bureau Chief Tom Barnes can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 717-787-4254.