HARRISBURG -- In a socially conservative state like Pennsylvania, where God and guns rate high with many people, legalizing marriage between two men or two women could be a difficult thing to accomplish.
But state Sen. Daylin Leach, a Democrat from Montgomery County outside Philadelphia, is going to try.
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Five other states, including Iowa and four states in New England, have already legalized same-sex marriage, he said yesterday, and New Hampshire probably isn't far behind.
"In the past few weeks, several states have legalized same-sex marriage, and many will soon follow suit," Mr. Leach predicted. "There has never been a more propitious time for Pennsylvania to embrace equality and enshrine the civil right of all Pennsylvanians to marry."
He said the alternative to legalizing same-sex marriage "is retaining our current archaic protocol which treats an entire group of citizens as second class. This protocol denies the reality of same-sex families, many of whom have children."
"This bill is a historic first," said American Civil Liberties Union lobbyist Andy Hoover. "Sen. Leach recognizes the direction we are heading in this country -- that the lesbian and gay community will ultimately have marriage equality. It's not a question of 'if' but 'when.'"
But Mr. Leach is one of the more liberal members of the General Assembly, and many of his colleagues don't see same-sex marriage the way he does.
They noted that California just went the other way on the subject, with the state Supreme Court upholding a law there that bans same-sex marriage.
And Tom Shaheen, vice president of the Pennsylvania Family Institute, disputed Mr. Leach's claim that "many" more states will recognize gay marriage.
"The exact opposite has happened," Mr. Shaheen said. "Thirty states, through extensive debate and popular vote of the people, have passed constitutional amendments [banning same-sex marriage], and all in a relative short time frame."
Mr. Leach's bill to legalize gay marriage is the exact opposite of what Sen. John Eichelberger, R-Blair, wants to do. Next week he will introduce Senate Bill 707, which would strengthen Pennsylvania's current law defining marriage as only between one man and one woman. The law bans same-sex marriage and polygamy.
The Defense of Marriage Act was enacted in 1996, but Mr. Eichelberger wants to amend the state constitution with a ban on same-sex marriage. He wants to avoid having a group such as the American Civil Liberties Union file suit against the act and then having an "activist judge" throw the law out.
Mr. Eichelberger's bill to amend the constitution would have to be approved in two separate legislative sessions and then approved in a statewide referendum. The earliest that could happen would be May 2011.
Mr. Eichelberger said Mr. Leach's bill for gay marriage "reinforces one of my points -- that there is a threat in Pennsylvania against [the act]. This is another reason why we need to have citizens make that decision [against gay marriage] at the ballot box."
Under Mr. Leach's bill, Pennsylvania would permit same-sex marriages by state residents and also would recognize such marriages that were done in other states.
He would not, however, force churches and other religious institutions to perform same-sex marriages if doing so would violate their religious beliefs. Many Christians, in particular, believe the Bible specifically lists "homosexual" marriage as a substantial sin.
Bureau Chief Tom Barnes can be reached at email@example.com or 717-787-4254.