The state Senate will soon consider dueling pieces of legislation on same-sex marriage.
Hoping to capture the pro-gay-marriage momentum in other state legislatures, Sen. Daylin Leach (D., Montgomery) today introduced the state's first bill to legalize same-sex marriage.
Meanwhile, a colleague across the aisle, Sen. John Eichelberger (R., Blair), is preparing to introduce a constitutional amendment that would ban same-sex marriage, to prevent court decisions, such as the recent one in Iowa, allowing gay people the right to marry.
Leach said denying gay Pennsylvanians the right to marry robs them of the fundamental equal rights that heterosexual couples enjoy, such as the right of survivorship, power to make medical decisions, even the right to hospital visitation.
"The timing is right for Pennsylvania to be part of the national discussion," Leach said. "I want to make sure the discussion is not lopsided, that gay people know someone is fighting for them."
His bill would ensure that gay couples were recognized "in the eyes of the state," and would not force churches and other religious institutions to perform same-sex marriages if doing so would violate their religious beliefs.
Eichelberger said that the growing number of states legalizing same-sex marriage - and Leach's bill - were reasons for a constitutional amendment, even though Pennsylvania has since 1996 had a law establishing marriage as a union between a man and a woman.
"There's a sense of urgency to get things done," Eichelberger said. "We see activist courts making these decisions across the country."
The Senate bills are being introduced here as a number of other states move toward support of gay marriage and civil unions. Legislatures in Vermont and Maine recently approved same-sex marriage. The Nevada legislature last month overrode the governor's veto and approved a bill granting civil unions.
But California voters reacted differently, approving a referendum last fall defining marriage as a union between a man and a woman and barring the right of same-sex couples to marry. The California Supreme Court upheld the ban last week.
In all, 30 states have provisions in their constitutions defining marriage, and five states have legalized same-sex marriage.
Legislation on both ends of the gay-rights spectrum has failed to gain traction in recent years in Pennsylvania. Bills containing a constitutional amendment on marriage have been introduced in each of the last three legislative sessions, and none has been voted out of the Republican-led Senate.
Gay-rights advocates, on the other hand, have struggled to win support for seemingly less-controversial legislation that would forbid discrimination against gay people in housing and employment.
G. Terry Madonna, a political analyst and professor at Franklin and Marshall College, said the debut of the same-sex-marriage bill is "recognition of the times," while the repeated failure of the marriage amendment to win approval in the Senate suggests a "contentment with the status quo."
"They don't want to roil debate," Madonna said.
Leach said he was under no illusion that his bill would become law anytime soon. But he said he believed that in 15 years, same-sex marriage would be legal in all 50 states and people would look back on the controversy as they look back on bans on interracial marriage.
Madonna considers the introduction of both bills more acts of symbolism, he said, "than pieces of legislation that have any real prospect of passage."
Gov. Rendell most likely would veto Leach's bill and would have no say in the constitutional amendment, which would go to voters after being approved in two consecutive sessions.
"The governor is a vocal and visible supporter of equal rights but believes in civil unions rather than same-sex marriage," Rendell spokesman Chuck Ardo said. "He strongly opposes attempts to write discrimination into the state constitution."