State mayoral divide on gay marriage
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Freedom to Marry, an organization that advocates for the right of same-sex couples to marry, recently adopted a new group of elected officials to help spread its message: mayors.
"Mayors, on a really on-the-street, grass-roots level, are seeing [the issue] firsthand and talking to couples who are now married, couples who want to get married," said Jo Deutsch, federal director for Freedom to Marry.
Mayors for the Freedom to Marry launched Jan. 20 at the U.S. Conference of Mayors in Washington, D.C. Initially, 80 mayors signed a statement on the group's website, and since then, nearly 200 Democratic, Republican and Independent mayors from 32 states have signed the statement in support of the freedom of same-sex couples to marry.
Nine Pennsylvania mayors have signed on to date, but support for gay marriage is heavily weighted on one side of the state.
In the eastern third of the state, seven mayors -- including Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter -- have signed the statement. But in the western two-thirds of the state, only two mayors have signed on -- Braddock Mayor John Fetterman and, last week, Turtle Creek Mayor Adam Forgie.
A constituent created a petition encouraging Erie Mayor Joseph E. Sinnott to sign the statement. He did not return messages seeking comment.
G. Terry Madonna, a political scientist at Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster, has polled Pennsylvania for more than 20 years on a gamut of political issues.
Mr. Madonna said the eastern part of the state is far more socially liberal, noting that Republicans in Philadelphia and its suburbs are more socially liberal on gay marriage, gun control and abortion rights than Democrats in the rest of the state.
He was not surprised by the heavy support for gay marriage in the eastern part of the state.
"It's pretty consistent with what we've seen," he said.
"When you start talking about gay marriage, that's a hugely significant cultural issue around which there are also really strong religious convictions," he said.
Mr. Fetterman called the lack of participation in the western and central parts of the state "unfortunate."
"It's a fundamental civil right of anybody to be able to publicly establish whom you love and want to spend the rest of your life with," he said.
Ms. Deutsch, though, stressed that a mayor's absence from the list might not be an indication that he or she doesn't support same-sex marriage, and she said a louder voice by mayors who have already signed the statement will draw more to the cause.
"These are men and women who are really excited about taking a role in this issue and trying to make a difference for their constituents," she said.
While mayors might not have a lot of sway in Washington, "they're all interconnected."
"We hope that mayors will talk to Congress members about what they're hearing from constituents and really do a ground-up effort for us," Ms. Deutsch said.
Mr. Forgie said he "wholeheartedly" supports same-sex marriage and plans to bring Mayors for the Freedom to Marry to the attention of the members of the Pennsylvania State Mayors Association. He is the group's vice president.
Mr. Forgie, a teacher in the Woodland Hills School District, said he uses the debate surrounding gay marriage to teach his students about discrimination.
"Not permitting same-sex marriages is a blatant form of discrimination and a civil rights violation," he said in an email. "If I did not support it, I would be not practicing what I preach."
Discrimination, he said, is "not just about color. That's what I'm trying to get across to the students."
Joanna Doven, a spokeswoman for Pittsburgh Mayor Luke Ravenstahl, said he does not support gay marriage and would not sign the Mayors for the Freedom to Marry statement. She noted Mr. Ravenstahl does support civil unions and legislation that gives benefits to same-sex couples.
Mr. Fetterman noted that many things that were once taboo in a variety of religious traditions -- including divorce -- are now permitted.
"Thus, I shouldn't have to point out the irony of dissolving a 'traditional' marriage -- a major 'sin' and affront to the religious beliefs of many -- while concurrently denying gays institutional access on those same theological grounds," he said in an email.
Mr. Fetterman said civil unions don't go far enough, calling them "the 'colored' drinking fountains of today."
"Pittsburgh will never fully realize its rightful place as one of this nation's premier cities until the leadership supports same-sex marriage," he said.
City Councilman Bill Peduto, a likely challenger to Mr. Ravenstahl in next year's election, said he would support Mayors for the Freedom to Marry.
"Fairness and equality are the basis of this country," he said. "Supporting same-sex marriage is something I've supported throughout my career."
Mr. Forgie said he's glad Mayors for the Freedom to Marry is forcing a dialogue about the issue.
"I like hearing the conversations are happening more and more around the country," he said. "I hope this continues to be a trend."
First Published April 1, 2012 10:41 am