Skip to content
Link copied to clipboard

Suit for Pa. gay marriage to be filed

A federal lawsuit seeking to overturn Pennsylvania's ban on same-sex marriage will be filed Tuesday by 11 gay couples and others who say their rights and dignity have been trampled.

A federal lawsuit seeking to overturn Pennsylvania's ban on same-sex marriage will be filed Tuesday by 11 gay couples and others who say their rights and dignity have been trampled.

The suit comes 13 days after the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the federal law that defined marriage as between a man and a woman, and as national polls show that record numbers of Americans support gay unions.

"Our lives are the same as other people's lives, and we certainly deserve the same rights and benefits," said plaintiff Maureen Hennessey, who legally married another Philadelphia woman in Massachusetts. When her spouse died, Hennessey said, she suffered financial penalties not imposed on heterosexual widows.

The plaintiffs in the suit, to be filed in Harrisburg, are couples in committed relationships who want to marry but cannot, or who wed in states that permit same-sex marriage but find their unions are not recognized here. Two plaintiffs are teenage children who say they have been stigmatized by the state's failure to recognize their parents' union.

"We are seeking the freedom to marry for all same-sex couples," said Molly Tack-Hooper, an attorney for the plaintiffs with the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania. "Pennsylvania is a state in which the public is ready to embrace full equality for lesbian and gay couples, even though the legislature does not reflect the public's views."

Thirteen states and the District of Columbia allow gay couples to wed. New Jersey does not. Pennsylvania legislators passed the Defense of Marriage Act in 1996 to ban same-sex marriages and specify that gay marriages from other states are not valid here.

Republican Gov. Corbett opposes gay marriage, and in recent years Republicans have led efforts to ban the practice by amending the state constitution. Many religious and conservative groups condemn same-sex unions.

Named as defendants are Corbett, Attorney General Kathleen Kane, state Health Department Secretary Michael Wolf, and the registers of wills in Washington and Bucks Counties, where two plaintiff couples say they were refused marriage licenses.

The plaintiffs are male and female, and black, white, Asian, and Latino. Among them are an emergency-room doctor at Einstein Medical Center, a teacher at the University of Pennsylvania Law School, a truck driver, a dog trainer, artist, and a stay-at-home mother. One is a Navy veteran of the Vietnam War.

They live across Pennsylvania, and many have been together for decades.

The suit asserts that Pennsylvania has no legitimate governmental interest in excluding same-sex couples from marriage. The ban disparages gay couples and their children, the suit states, and denies them legal protections afforded to heterosexual couples, including:

An opposite-sex husband or wife is exempt from inheritance tax on property left them by their spouse, including their home. A same-sex partner must pay 15 percent.

A heterosexual partner receives half to all of their spouse's estate if their spouse dies with no will. A same-sex survivor gets nothing.

Under labor laws, the opposite-sex spouse of someone killed or injured in the workplace can bring suit for damages. A same-sex partner has no legal standing to sue.

Heterosexual widows and widowers of public employees are eligible for survivor's benefits. Same-sex partners are not.

Hennessey, 53, lived in a committed relationship for 29 years until her partner, Mary Beth McIntyre, died in May at age 55.

Both were born and raised in Philadelphia. Together they raised three children - Hennessey's son from a previous relationship, and McIntyre's niece and nephew, whose mother died when they were young. They registered with the city government as life partners in 2002.

In 2009, McIntyre was diagnosed with inoperable lung cancer. Hennessey left her job as a city schoolteacher to care for her and help run her accounting business, their main source of income.

Two years later, they married in Massachusetts, where gay marriage is legal. They would have preferred to wed in Pennsylvania, where friends could more easily attend, but knew their time together was growing short, the suit states.

As McIntyre's health worsened, Hennessey cared for her, helping her get in and out of bed, bathing her, administering her medicines. Along with the physical and mental pain of end-stage cancer, the suit states, McIntyre suffered the anxiety of how her family would manage financially without her.

Because Pennsylvania does not recognize their marriage, Hennessey must pay a 15 percent inheritance tax. Unless the law changes, she will not receive McIntyre's Social Security payments at 65, a benefit accorded to straight couples.

Hennessey said she also is denied the simple dignity of being acknowledged as McIntyre's widow.

"You tell people you're married, and it really doesn't mean anything in Pennsylvania," she said. "Pennsylvania needs to jump on board this train."

Tack-Hooper said she and other lawyers deliberately gathered plaintiffs of all colors, religious beliefs, and occupations to show that the ban harms everyday people.

"These couples want to be married for the same reasons that anybody else wants to get married - because they love each other," she said. They also want the rights and security that marriage confers.

"We're filing [a suit], but we're also conducting a campaign in the court of public opinion," Tack-Hooper said. "We want people who might not support same-sex marriage to come around. We want to show them exactly the kind of people who are being hurt by this."