Can same-sex couples in Pennsylvania gain benefits? It depends
A state of uncertainty prevails for lawmakers in Harrisburg
June 27, 2013 12:00 PM
Nancy Murrell, left, of the North Side, and her partner Adriana Helbig celebrate Downtown after the Supreme Court's ruling on the Defense of Marriage Act.
By Anya Sostek Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Hundreds of same-sex marriage supporters partied Wednesday morning on Liberty Avenue in Downtown Pittsburgh, waving rainbow flags and hugging in celebration as a giant television screen above them broadcast the announcement that the U.S. Supreme Court had struck down a portion of the federal Defense of Marriage Act.
But beyond symbolism and good cheer, what does the ruling actually mean for same-sex couples who live in Pennsylvania but have been married in other states?
And what does it mean for the future of proposed laws in Pennsylvania to allow same-sex marriage and to declare marriage a union only between a man and a woman?
Supreme Court ruling delights Pittsburgh throng
A gathering Downtown, including many from Pittsburgh's LGBT community, reacted with cheers and hugs when the Supreme Court ruled the Defense of Marriage Act unconstitutional. (Video by Andrew Rush and Nate Guidry; 6/26/2013)
It's complicated. Very complicated.
"We still very much live in a patchwork kind of nation," said Susan Sommer, director of constitutional litigation for Lambda Legal, a New York-based gay rights organization. "A same-sex couple living in Pennsylvania might have some uncertainty in the weeks and months ahead."
There are more than 1,100 places in federal law where marital status matters, Ms. Sommer said, encompassing nearly every federal agency. There's no uniform standard for whether an agency considers couples to be married depending on the "place of celebration" where their marriage was performed or their "place of residence" where the couple live.
Currently, for example, the Internal Revenue Service uses a standard of place of residence, meaning that a Pennsylvania couple who drove over the border to get married in Maryland would not have their marriage recognized for federal tax purposes.
For immigration purposes, on the other hand, the federal government uses a place of celebration status, meaning that a same-sex Pennsylvania couple seeking to get a green card for a spouse in a marriage performed in Maryland would have federal recognition of their marriage.
There's really no rhyme or reason to which agencies use which standard, Ms. Sommer said.
The Department of Defense has a place of residence standard for active-duty military, while the Department of Veterans Affairs uses place of celebration.
To add to the confusion, some federal agencies -- including the Social Security Administration -- have their standards set by statute, meaning Congress would have to be involved to make a change. Others have their standards set by administrative rules or guidelines, meaning the Obama administration might be able to change them unilaterally.
Where Wednesday's ruling would have a direct effect is on Pennsylvania residents married in other states who are federal employees, Ms. Sommer said. They or their spouses would now be eligible for benefits such as health insurance that they didn't have access to previously.
As far as Pennsylvania law is concerned, those for and against same-sex marriage say Wednesday's decision could push their cause.
State Rep. Daryl Metcalfe, R-Cranberry, chairman of the State Government Committee, opposes same-sex marriage. He has proposed a bill defining marriage as a union between a man and a woman, but it has been stuck in committee.
"When Pennsylvania citizens recognize what the high court in our country has done through this act of judicial activism, I believe it will gain more momentum for us in actually protecting marriage here in Pennsylvania," he said. "... I believe it will give my argument and the individuals who are working with me and supportive of the change here in Pennsylvania more momentum to actually change our Constitution and protect marriage between a man and a woman."
Any constitutional change is an extended process that involves approval by two successive sessions of the Legislature, followed by a referendum.
"We've been warning for years that if we don't do so through a constitutional amendment to our Constitution, then we are in danger of having a man or a woman or several men and women in black robes, through an act of judicial activism, tell us what the definition of marriage is," Mr. Metcalfe said.
Similar legislation to allow same-sex marriage and to outlaw discrimination based on sexual orientation also has been stalled in Mr. Metcalfe's committee.
"It should be a wake-up call for Pennsylvania. We're still in a state where it is legal to discriminate," said state Rep. Dan Frankel, D-Squirrel Hill, who regularly has sponsored anti-discrimination legislation.
Rep. Brian Sims, D-Philadelphia, the only openly gay House member, said support is building on both sides of the aisle for anti-discrimination legislation. Many municipalities, including Pittsburgh and Philadelphia, already have enacted such protections for LGBT people.
But in about 70 percent of the state, "I could still lose my job, get kicked out of my apartment, even be denied buying a cheeseburger ... because I'm gay or even because someone thought I was gay," Mr. Sims said.
State Sen. Daylin Leach, D-Montgomery, sponsor of legislation to legalize same-sex marriage in Pennsylvania, called the ruling "the arc of history bending toward justice."
This language "and these decisions make it clear that legal discrimination against gay people is on its way to the ash heap of history," he said. "The Legislature and governor of Pennsylvania now have a crucial decision to make. Do we now embrace equality and, as Hubert Humphrey said, 'walk into the bright sunshine of human rights,' or do we join states like Mississippi and Alabama as dead-enders, fighting a sad and futile battle for prejudice and fear?"