A suburban Philadelphia county defying Pennsylvania’s marriage law issued its 100th same-sex license Friday, just weeks after opening the courthouse door to gay men and women.
Montgomery County Democrats behind the quiet rebellion said they want to be on the right side of history.
However, it’s not clear the new unions will survive a legal challenge from Republican Gov. Tom Corbett’s administration. And it’s even less clear they will be recognized when it comes to health insurance, taxes and other benefits.
“Our philosophy has always been that we would never go to another state to pursue marriage, that marriage would have to come to us,” said Virginia “Ginny” Perrine-Wilson, 45, of Lansdowne in neighboring Delaware County, who picked up the 100th license Friday. “We decided this is about as close as it gets. At least we’re getting in on the ground floor, and hoping maybe this will be the impetus to change the state law.”
The American Civil Liberties Union is trying a different tack to bring gay marriage to Pennsylvania, the only state in the Northeast that doesn’t legally recognize same-sex couples. The ACLU has filed a federal lawsuit to challenge the state’s 1996 marriage act, which defines marriage as between a man and a woman. That suit could take years to wind through the courts.
In the meantime, 30 same-sex couples have married since Montgomery County awarded the first license July 24. Their actions amount to civil disobedience, one Temple University history professor believes.
“They’re acting in that long tradition of dissent: women fighting for suffrage, blacks fighting for civil rights,” said Professor Ralph Young, who teaches a class on and has a book on dissent in America. “They’re trying to force the government to do something.”
D. Bruce Hanes, the county’s register of wills, has said he believes he has the authority to issue the licenses in part because of a U.S. Supreme Court decision in June that the federal government could not deny benefits to married same-sex couples who live in states that allow same-sex marriage.
Hanes wasn’t sure whether to expect “a line around the block, or nobody” after his office signaled support for gay marriage. Instead, there’s been a steady influx of five to 10 couples a day, and only polite demonstrations by either side.
“The American people probably have other things on their minds,” said Hanes, 66, a mild-mannered local official who claims no future political ambition. “A lot of people are worried about jobs, they’re worried about poverty, they’re worried about medical care.”
A relatively affluent area outside Philadelphia, Montgomery is the state’s third-largest county. County Commission President Josh Shapiro expects same-sex marriage to come to Pennsylvania one way or another, but not from the Republican-led legislature, where he once served.
“I have very little confidence that my former colleagues will embrace marriage equality with any haste, and so it seems to me that this issue will be left to the courts,” said Shapiro, a Democrat.
The first couple awarded a Montgomery County license married within hours, but Ginny and Nicole Perrine-Wilson don’t plan to wed for another month or two. Together for 15 years, they already share a name, a century-old home and a young daughter.
They know they won’t reap any economic benefits right away, given the ongoing legal fight. They already have health insurance through work — Ginny is a proposal manager, Nicole a German teacher — but hope to someday file joint tax returns and avoid a nightmare over inheritance taxes if one spouse dies.
The legal benefits “that normal, heterosexual couples can get … we are obviously trying to achieve all of that,” Ginny Perrine-Wilson said. “We’re not expecting that to happen overnight.”