Washington County Register of Wills Mary Jo Poknis said she was only following state law when she turned away a gay couple from South Fayette who were trying to apply for a marriage license last month.
In fact, Deb and Susan Whitewood knew they would be rejected when they arrived at the Washington County Courthouse for the license June 24.
But the couple of 22 years is now suing Poknis and several others, despite both saying there’s no animosity between the two sides. The federal lawsuit filed Tuesday by the Whitewoods and several other same-sex couples targets Poknis, another register of wills in Bucks County and numerous state officials in an attempt to overturn Pennsylvania’s ban on gay marriage.
“They were very nice and very respectful,” Poknis recalled. “They didn’t fight me. They wanted to know if we had anything in writing (to reject the request). I think they needed to do this to go through the motions. I had a feeling this would happen.”
The women knew they’d be rejected and were in the courthouse for less than a couple of minutes before leaving. Still, they were somewhat nervous about approaching even though the exchange with Poknis and her staff turned out to be quite cordial.
“It’s a little bit nerve-wracking when you know the answer is no,” Susan Whitewood said. “Mary Jo and her team were wonderful.”
Still, she said they wanted to spearhead the lawsuit and “make a statement” in an attempt to change state law.
“For us, Deb and I have never really marched,” Susan Whitewood said. “We’ve never been on the front lines for social justice. We, as a couple, have led by example.”
Deb Whitewood said it was an important step for them – and especially their three children – to be seen as a family and treated equally by the law.
“Most people don’t understand the lack of protection we have as a family, the lack of benefits, the inability to get in a hospital,” she said. “I think this was an opportunity to let people know why my family needs to be treated equally, because it isn’t.”
The couple chose to come to Washington County because it’s an easier drive than to the Allegheny County Courthouse in Pittsburgh.
Mary Catherine Roper, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union who is helping bring the lawsuit, said Poknis understandably rejected the application and was brought into the lawsuit because of the “complexities of suing over state law.” She expected the state would step in to defend the law and that Washington County would not be saddled with major legal fees.
“We’re not saying (Poknis) did anything wrong,” Roper said. “(She’s) a stand-in and sometimes it’s important to not sue just the governor, but also the stand-ins for that law.”
Roper added she hopes Poknis is not offended or upset by the lawsuit. She complimented the register of wills and her staff on how they treated the couple.
Poknis said as the county official who issues marriage licenses, state law does not allow her to make accommodations to same-sex couples. It’s also mandates Poknis and her staff to not allow minors to get married and she must must ask for documents proving a previous marriage was dissolved.
Poknis noted she’s never been sued before, and she’s turned the matter over to her solicitor and the Washington County legal team to inform her how to proceed. She added she’s not overly concerned about the lawsuit and did not begrudge the South Fayette couple.
“We’re in a quiet county with not very much controversy,” Poknis said. “I passed (the lawsuit) along to my solicitor and we’ll see where it goes. I didn’t feel like I did anything wrong because I would’ve broken the law if I had issued (the license).”