HARRISBURG - A billboard along the Pennsylvania Turnpike poses the question: "Should Pennsylvania kiss marriage goodbye?"
A coalition of religious activists sponsoring that message and others like it hopes the ads will inspire citizens to prod lawmakers to pass a state constitutional amendment banning gay marriage - resurrecting a debate that stalled abruptly last year.
Despite an existing statutory ban on same-sex marriages in Pennsylvania, the coalition says that the institution of marriage is vulnerable to attack. The activists cite recent developments such as New Jersey's legalization of civil unions under a court order.
Coalition spokeswoman Debbie Hamilton says a constitutional amendment would fortify the law against possible legal challenges in Pennsylvania, and the group wants average citizens who sympathize with its cause to become comfortable lobbying lawmakers on the issue.
"A lot of people have never done that before, and they're nervous about it," Hamilton said. "We're letting them know that these are friendly people, and they've helped put them into office, and they're here to carry out the desire of their constituents."
The coalition includes the Pennsylvania Family Institute, the Pennsylvania Catholic Conference, and the Pennsylvania Pastors Network. Its campaign has received a financial boost in the form of a $300,000 grant from the Knights of Columbus, a Catholic fraternal organization that has 65,000 members in Pennsylvania.
Twenty-seven other states have enacted similar constitutional bans, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
Any effort to change Pennsylvania's constitution would take time. Amendments must be passed in each of two consecutive two-year legislative sessions, then win voter approval in a statewide referendum. The earliest that could happen is 2009.
Last year, the House and Senate - both controlled by Republicans at the time - passed conflicting versions of an amendment, but could not resolve a dispute over whether it should also apply to civil unions, which conservatives consider tantamount to gay marriage.
With the House GOP now in the minority, that chamber's prime sponsor doesn't plan to take the lead again.
Rep. Scott Boyd, R-Lancaster, said he still favors the idea, but noted that one of its most outspoken opponents, Philadelphia Democrat Babette Josephs, now chairs the State Government Committee, which would have to review any proposed constitutional amendment.
"The fact that the Republicans are in the minority . . . makes the likelihood of us getting something through the House virtually impossible," Boyd said.
Sen. Bob Regola, R-Westmoreland, led the charge in the Senate last year. Regola aide Nate Silcox said Regola is working on other constitutional amendments this year and expects someone else to become the lead sponsor of a same-sex marriage ban, although Silcox could not say who that would be.
Gay-rights activists are keeping an eye on the Pennsylvania for Marriage campaign and are ready to respond if a proposed amendment should gain traction, said Stacey Sobel, executive director of Equality Advocates Pennsylvania.
"The people who are supporting a constitutional amendment . . . are crying that the sky is falling when there truly is no issue at this time," Sobel said.
"Pennsylvania has never gone down this road, and it would be a serious mistake to do this now." *