The Corbett administration responded with force Tuesday to challenges to Pennsylvania's law prohibiting gay marriage.
In two separate actions, the state Health Department filed a petition seeking a "cease and desist" order against a Montgomery County official who began a week ago to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples, while Gov. Tom Corbett's general counsel sent a strongly worded letter to the state attorney general, accusing her of abrogating her duty for refusing to defend the law.
The petition, filed in Commonwealth Court against Montgomery County Clerk of Orphan's Court D. Bruce Hanes, demands that he be prohibited from issuing any more such licenses and instead be required to enforce Pennsylvania's Marriage Law.
"The clerk's actions are in direct defiance of the express policy of the commonwealth that 'marriage shall be between one man and one woman,' " wrote chief counsel Alison Taylor for the Health Department.
Joan Nagel, who is with the Montgomery County Register of Wills, said Tuesday that 34 marriage licenses have thus far been issued to gay couples from the office.
Mr. Hanes announced on July 23 that he would begin issuing licenses to same-sex couples. He was acting on a statement by state Attorney General Kathleen Kane that Pennsylvania's marriage laws are "wholly unconstitutional," leaving it to Mr. Corbett's general counsel, James Schultz, to defend against the lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union on behalf of 10 gay couples.
Mr. Hanes said he decided "to come down on the right side of history and the law."
Same-sex marriage, Tuesday's filing said, could lead to those couples seeking benefits "or other treatment [both public and private] that is reserved for those who are lawfully married under Pennsylvania law.
"There is no limit to the administrative and legal chaos that is likely to flow from the clerk's unlawful practice of issuing marriage licenses to those who are not permitted under Pennsylvania law to marry," the petition said.
The filing was made by the state Department of Health because it is responsible for providing the forms for marriage license applications to individual counties and for keeping vital statistics information relating to those.
On Tuesday, Ms. Kane's decision prompted a stern four-page letter from Mr. Schultz to her first deputy, Adrian R. King Jr., in which he accused the attorney general of abrogating her duty based on her own personal feelings.
"That duty is mandatory, not discretionary," Mr. Schultz wrote.
The only exception, he continued, is if a court issues a decision finding that the law is unconstitutional, which has not happened in this case.
Further, Mr. Schultz said Ms. Kane has placed any lawyer now left to defend the case at a disadvantage and that she has set "a very troubling precedent."
"This has the very real potential to compromise, among other things, the functions of the legislative and judicial branches of our government and the defense of our laws."
Mr. Schultz claims that no one in the state Legislature will know whether the attorney general will defend their work, and "This will create 'chaos and uncertainty.'
"Finally, future attorneys general and other public officials will be able to cite this precedent to ignore their duty when it is inconvenient or uncomfortable for them to perform it."
In an emailed letter sent to Mr. Schultz in response to his earlier in the day, Mr. King said his boss had an obligation under the rules of professional conduct to not defend Pennsylvania's marriage law based on her fundamental disagreement with the governor.
As for the allegation that Ms. Kane's actions set a troubling precedent, Mr. King said, "The marriage law is one of the last discriminatory statutes in the commonwealth. Just as discriminatory laws based on race, religion, gender, disability and ethnic origin have been struck down by the courts one by one, so too will the marriage law. In short, this is a watershed moment. It is certainly not the beginning of the 'chaos and uncertainty' that you hysterically predict."
Paula Reed Ward: firstname.lastname@example.org, 412-263-2620 or on Twitter @PaulaReedWard.