When D. Bruce Hanes, the county's elected Recorder of Wills, announced today that he would not deny marriage licenses to same-sex couples, the response from Commissioner Bruce Castor was softer than it had been in the past.
"The risk is entirely his to take," Castor said. "He did ask my opinion and I gave it, but as an attorney and not as a commissioner."
Castor said he doesn't believe Hanes has the authority to buck state law -- even if Hanes believes the law is unconstitutional.
For his part, Castor said, "I don't think it's my job as commissioner to express an opinion. ... My legal opinion is that the law defines marriage as between a man and a woman, and thus no such license could ever be valid."
But Castor's decision not to interfere with Hanes' decision was quite a departure from his stance in March 2004, when he was Montgomery County District Attorney and running against now-Gov. Corbett for Attorney General.
At that time, Hanes' predescessor, Frances Pierce, had asked her solicitor for an opinion on same-sex marriage licenses. No such licenses had been requested or granted in Montco, but according to an Inquirer report, Castor issued a pre-emptive letter to Pierce:
"Should you, as clerk of the Orphan's Court, permit to be issued a marriage license to a gay or lesbian couple, you and your office would potentially face criminal liability," Castor wrote. The charge, he said, would be obstructing administration of law or other governmental function, a misdemeanor.
Today, Castor said he was "slightly misquoted" back then, and what he meant was that couples could face liability if they "purported to be married" when in fact the state did not recognize their union.
On the Democratic side of the dais, Commissioners Josh Shapiro and Leslie Richards praised Hanes' decision Tuesday.
"Equality took a step forward in Montgomery County with the decision to issue marriage licenses to same sex couples," said Shapiro. "I firmly believe in marriage equality. "While this is certainly not the end of the debate, an important step was taken today with Montgomery County leading the way."