Penn. Lawsuit Seeks to Stop County From Issuing Same-Sex Marriage Licenses

A lawsuit filed in Pennsylvania Tuesday seeks to stop one county from continuing to violate state law by issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples.

The suit was filed by the state's Department of Health against D. Bruce Hanes in his role as the Clerk of the Orphans' Court of Montgomery County. Under state law, marriage is defined as a "civil contract by which one man and one woman take each other for husband and wife," but the petition says Hanes announced on July 23 that his office would begin issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples.

The text on the marriage licenses says those who are to be wed are to be joined in matrimony "according to the laws of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania." Still, same-sex couples from counties throughout the state have reportedly gone to Montgomery County to receive a license.

"Thus, as a result of the illegal issuance of marriage licenses by the Clerk, it appears that same-sex couples are proceeding with marriage ceremonies that are not permitted by Pennsylvania law, marriage certificates are being illegally filed, and the same-sex couples are left to believe erroneously that they have entered into a valid marriage under the law of Pennsylvania," the lawsuit states.

Attorneys for the Department of Health, which keeps records of each marriage in the state, argues that Hanes' actions are not only illegal but have hindered the department from properly performing its own administrative duties. The suit also expresses concern that same-sex couples who marry using the illegal licenses may also apply for benefits reserved for those who are legally married.

"There is no limit to the administrative and legal chaos that is likely to flow from the Clerk's unlawful practice of issuing marriage licenses to those who are not permitted under Pennsylvania law to marry," the suit says.

Pennsylvania's marriage law was amended in 1996 under Governor Thomas J. Ridge to define marriage as being between a man and a woman. The amendment also addressed the issue of same-sex marriages that are legal in other states: "A marriage between persons of the same sex which was entered into another state or foreign jurisdiction, even if valid where entered into, shall be void in this Commonwealth."

Still, some people have praised Hanes' decision to issue the licenses. Long-time same-sex marriage supporters Josh Shapiro and Leslie Richards, members of the Montgomery County Board of Commissioners, showed their support for Hanes in a press release the day of Hanes' announcement.

 "Equality took a step forward in Montgomery County with the decision to issue marriage licenses to same sex couples," said Shapiro. "I enthusiastically support the Register of Wills' decision that he made in consultation with his solicitor. 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."

Richards said Hanes showed "excellent judgment and courage" in his decision.

Montgomery County had issued 34 licenses and registered six same-sex marriages as of Tuesday afternoon, The Associated Press reports.

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