Monday, July 6, 2015

Montco Officials at the Forefront of History and Cultural Change

Montgomery County Courthouse/file photo by Carl Hessler Jr.

Hope everyone had a happy Fourth of July holiday, or if you prefer, Independence Day!

As local residents celebrated all the cherished freedoms they have, it must be noted that just 10 days ago, in a landmark ruling, the U.S. Supreme Court voted 5-4 to legalize same-sex marriage in all 50 states, a freedom sought by same-sex couples for many years. It should be pointed out that Montgomery County played a pivotal role in the national debate on the issue and that the county made state history early on in the debate.

In July 2013, Montgomery County was ground zero for the same-sex marriage debate when D. Bruce Hanes, the register of wills in the state’s third-largest county, issued the state’s first same-sex marriage licenses to Loreen Bloodgood and Alicia Terlizzi of Limerick. At the time, Hanes said he wanted to come down “on the right side of history and the law.”
Montco Register of Wills D. Bruce Hanes/Times Herald Photo by Gene Walsh

At that time, Pennsylvania law defined a marriage as a civil contract between a man and a woman and did not recognize civil unions or same-sex marriages from other states.

Hanes’ decision came shortly after the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the section of the federal Defense of Marriage Act that failed to guarantee equal benefits to same sex couples.

Hanes’ decision sparked peaceful protests by members of the Pro-Life Coalition of Pa. who showed up at Hanes’ office, holding rosaries and signs reading “Children Need a Mom and Dad,” to pray as same-sex couples obtained marriage licenses. To his credit, a respectful Hanes didn't interrupt the protesters and likewise didn’t let them interrupt him from carrying out the business of his office.

“There’s always going to be protests. They have a right to be here just as much as we have a right to be here. You know what, they can’t hurt me,” Sander Schlichter told me as he and his partner Charles Burrus, of Penn Valley, appeared at Hanes’ office to obtain a marriage license that day.
Sander Schlichter & Charles Burrus/Mercury photo by Carl Hessler Jr.

In the weeks that followed, supporters of Hanes held a marriage equality rally on the steps of the courthouse, ground zero again in a state and national debate.

A legal hotbed ensued when the state Department of Health sued Hanes to stop issuing the licenses. At one point, Hanes ceased issuing the licenses when a state judge ruled he didn’t have the legal authority to do so and while an appeal to the state Supreme Court was filed. Between July and September 2013 Hanes’ office had issued more than 170 marriage licenses to same-sex couples.

But by May 2014, U.S. District Judge John E. Jones III ruled that Pennsylvania’s DOMA law was unconstitutional. The state Supreme Court subsequently lifted the ban that prevented Hanes from issuing the same-sex marriage licenses.

While it was local, Hanes’ decision forced him into the national spotlight. I remember being at the health club and seeing Hanes’ face on the big screen TV overhead, being interviewed on a national, evening newscast.

“It’s not and it never was about me, I’m not a crusader,” Hanes told The Mercury last week after the historic U.S. Supreme Court ruling was announced. “This was always about equal protection under the law and due process.”

The June 26 high court ruling prompted county Commissioner Chairman Josh Shapiro to shout, “Love is the law! Today’s ruling marks a great step forward for our democracy and our gay friends and family.”

It’s difficult to gauge if Hanes moved national or local public opinion about the issue. But whether you agree with the ruling or not, Hanes’ role in the debate made history in Montgomery County and put the county in the national spotlight for a brief period of time.

Last week, Bloodgood told The Mercury, “I knew the winds of change were blowing in our direction, but it has been like hurricane-force winds changing everything. Just think, it was not even two years ago now that the Supreme Court ruled on the Defense of Marriage Act and Bruce Hanes decided he would start issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples and now it’s the law of the land."

Bloodgood added, prophetically, “I think it’s ironic that while the Confederate flag is falling, the flag of pride is rising.”
A man supports Hanes' decision outside courthouse in July 2013/ Mercury Photo by Carl Hessler Jr.
Social media went bonkers when the ruling came down, with tweets from supporters and detractors alike about the new freedom.

I think a colleague, @Smoore1117 sarcastically tweeted it best when he wrote, “Woke up this morning, looked a @armoore815 & decided our traditional marriage is irrevocably damaged. Gay marriage is ruining everything.”

In the high court’s 5-4 ruling, Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote,” No longer may this liberty be denied…No union is more profound than marriage.” Kennedy, who was joined by the court’s four more liberal justices, Breyer, Ginsburg, Kagan and Sotomayer, added those who sought the right to marry revealed “that they seek not to denigrate marriage but rather to live their lives, or honor their spouses’ memories, joined by its bond.”

Several religious organizations have criticized the decision. Sam Rohrer, a former Berks state legislator and onetime candidate for governor, issued a statement on behalf of the American Pastors’ Network, saying “this landmark decision had deep biblical, historical and constitutional roots, and unfortunately, our justices chose to redefine marriage for the entire nation, ignoring other constitutional rights and opening the door to a dangerous infringement on religious liberties.”

But the high court’s ruling ensures that constitutional protections will continue to allow churches to decide who they will marry.  So, I don't know what all the religious fuss is about.

Personally, I never understood how anyone could be against love.  So, I am glad my gay and lesbian family and friends have this new freedom.

For someone who covers the courts on a daily basis, it was interesting to have a front row seat to the legal battles and protests that brewed in Montgomery County during the last two years. For a brief period of time, county officials stood at the forefront of history and cultural change.

No comments:

Post a Comment