What happens when one suburban county decides that it doesn’t like its state’s laws and openly defies them?
It all began on June 26th when the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) declared DOMA (The Defense of Marriage Act) unconstitutional in the case of The United States vs. Windsor. By that ruling, all legally married same-sex couples are now entitled to federal benefits. The key phrase here is “legally married.” The U.S. federal government does not issue marriage licenses. That job falls to the states, many of which do not recognize same-sex marriage at all.
“Marriage.” A civil contract by which one man and one woman take each other for husband and wife. (Section 3304, Title 23, Part II, Chapter II, Section 1102)
But this Pennsylvania state law didn’t sit well with local Montgomery County officials who said we “want to come down on the right side of history.” After the SCOTUS ruling, Montgomery County, the third largest county in Pennsylvania, began issuing licenses to gay and lesbian couples in direct violation of the statute. To date, Montgomery County as issued over 115 licenses to same-sex couples.
One of these licenses was issued to Wiccan High Priestesses Lady Emrys and Lady Aradia of Innana’s Well of Philadelphia. The two women met in 2006 while attending Pagan classes in Atlanta. They have been sharing their lives ever since. When Montgomery County announced its intent, the couple jumped at the opportunity to finally enjoy the benefits of a legally binding marriage. Lady Emrys recalls:
Someone posted an article on Facebook about Montgomery County going “rogue.” My initial thought was that the state had probably already put a stop to it and we had likely missed our chance. I was thrilled to hear the following day that they continued to issue licenses to same-sex couples. A couple of days after that, when our schedules allowed, we went to the Clerk’s office and got our license. It was thrilling to say the least!
The County Clerk and Registrar of Wills, D. Bruce Hanes, has now become somewhat of a local hero. He told the Associated Press that he “believes he has the authority to issue the licenses in part because of a U.S. Supreme Court decision.” He reports that there has been a “steady influx of five to 10 couples a day and only polite demonstrations by either side.”
Lady Emrys and Lady Aradia commented how “deeply touched and appreciative” they are of Hanes and his staff. He was polite, enthusiastic and even apologetic when explaining that the County marriage forms still ask for the names of a “husband” and “wife.” Unphased the couple remarked “[We are] inspired and awed by [the staff’s] courage and willingness to take a stand against discrimination.”
They also thanked Attorney Robert Heim with Dechert law firm, who has taken up the case for the county. What case? The State of Pennsylvania is now suing Montgomery County for flagrant disobedience. In late July, Governor Tom Corbett and the State’s Department of Health filed a petition with the courts to force Hanes to “cease and desist.” On Monday, August 12th, they filed another brief to move forward with the suit.
In support of the Governor’s position, Pennsylvania lawmaker Daryl Metcalf said:
For a man to start violating the law as [Hanes] has and commit such a lawless act should be offensive to everyone, no matter what side of the issue you’re on. It doesn’t matter how many licenses he issues, they’re not worth the paper he’s printing them on.
Now, here’s where it becomes a bit more complicated. On July 9th, the ACLU and ACLU of PA filed its own federal lawsuit against Pennsylvania for its discriminatory statutes on marriage. In a press release, the ACLU stated:
The plaintiffs come from across the commonwealth and from all walks of life… [They] reflect Pennsylvania’s rich diversity: they are African-American, Caucasian, Latino and Asian; they are Methodist, Baptist, Catholic, Quaker, Jewish, Buddhist, and secular. Many have been together for decades, and some are raising children together. The situations faced by these couples are similar to those faced by the thousands of same-sex couples in Pennsylvania who are being denied the basic rights that are afforded by marriage.
That diversity also includes many Pagans like Lady Emrys and Lady Aradia. These two pending court cases will determine not only their legal fate as a couple but also affect their ability to perform legal marriages as Wiccan Clergy for other same-sex couples in the State. Lady Aradia said:
It’s my hope that Pagan clergy will be safe-havens for Pagan LGBT individuals and couples making life-changing commitments, just as they would for straight couples seeking spiritual guidance and counseling for marriage and starting families.
To add more fuel to the fire, on July 11th, Pennsylvania’s Attorney General, Kathleen Kane spoke out in defense of marriage equality saying that she would not support Pennsylvania’s Defense of Marriage Act in court. In a press release, Kane said:
We have always stood strong in the face of discrimination, which in its various forms has never withstood the test of time…It is our duty, each and every one of us, to protect the constitutionality, to protect the rights and dignity of others, and to protect the equality of all men and women in this Commonwealth.
So Pennsylvania’s saga continues with the Governor locking “horns” with the Attorney General as a rogue county official continues to issue same-sex marriage licenses in defiance of state law. It is has been called “civil disobedience at its best.”
Lady Emrys believes the situation will only escalate. She said:
This is likely going to turn into a battle similar to Prop 8 in California. I, for one, am concerned about repercussions the Clerk and his staff may face because of their stand. I think everyone feels certain, however, that in the end marriage laws that exclude same-sex couples from the institution of marriage will be deleted.
Lady Aradia, who works in Montgomery County, agreed and added:
When [marriage equality is] brought up, people are aware of [what is going on.] It seems as if the topic has been normalized… There’s an acceptance of this movement and more than anything, a sense of, “it’s about time.”
A recent Franklin and Marshall Poll reflects her observations, reporting that 52% of the state population supports the elimination of Pennyslvania’s DOMA statutes with 8% undecided.
For many Pagan LGBT members and those of similar minority religions, the elimination of these DOMA statutes has additional meaning. As noted by Lady Emrys:
What excites me most about this, aside from the joy of being legally joined with my partner, is that I see this as a step toward true religious freedom in this country. The exclusively heterosexual right to marriage has always been religious (primarily Christian), regardless of how the argument is packaged. The issuing of marriage licenses and certificates to same-sex couples frees people of the constraints of religions to which they do not subscribe, constraints which have no place in the United States.
Until these cases are settled, Lady Emrys and Lady Aradia ask that “ Pagans…throughout the U.S. surround Hanes and his staff with loving and protective energy so they can continue to perform their important work.” To this day, Montgomery County is still issuing licenses. The ACLU’s case will be heard in a Federal court in Harrisburg on September 30th. The story has not yet been written and we will be watching for new developments.