HARRISBURG – The amendment came to the floor of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives almost two decades ago as distracted lawmakers – wearied from a long day of floor debate and votes – got a jolt from the House speaker.
“This is an amendment that in some quarters might be considered controversial,” then-Speaker Matt Ryan, R-Delaware, warned House members on June 28, 1996. “You had better listen.”
It’s even more controversial today, especially after civil rights lawyers asked a federal judge in Harrisburg on Tuesday to overturn what is now a 17-year-old state law that bans same-sex marriage in Pennsylvania and prevents the state from recognizing same-sex marriages from states where they are legal.
Back then, no state had legalized same-sex marriage. Currently, 13 states and Washington, D.C., have laws supporting it – and Pennsylvania is the only northeastern state that doesn’t allow same sex marriage or civil unions.
The proposal met vehement opposition from a few lawmakers who spoke on the floor, but ultimately just 34 out of 253 lawmakers in the House and Senate voted to stop the provision.
Of the state lawmakers who are still sitting, 42 supported it and 10 opposed the amendment at least once. Three members of the U.S. House – Republicans Charles Dent, Jim Gerlach and Joseph Pitts – were state lawmakers when they voted for the provision, while one – Democrat Allyson Schwartz – voted against it. Mike Fisher, now a judge on the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Philadelphia, voted for it as a Republican state senator.
Today, a handful of lawmakers who voted for that law belong to the Legislature’s 60-member lesbian- and gay-rights caucus, which supports same-sex marriage. One of them, Rep. Michael McGeehan, D-Philadelphia, said he regrets that vote and struggled with it at the time.
“If it was 1996 again, I wish I would have made another decision,” McGeehan said.
The Republican governor who signed the law, Tom Ridge, has also had an apparent change of heart. In February, he signed on to a friend-of-the-court brief asking the U.S. Supreme Court to uphold the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals decision striking down California’s Proposition 8, which had banned gay marriage.
During floor comments, the writer of the amendment, then-Rep. Allan Egolf, R-Perry, told colleagues that he wanted Pennsylvania to avoid higher costs that would result from providing insurance and pension benefits to same-sex partners and to enshrine into law the state’s “traditional and longstanding policy of moral opposition to same-sex marriages.”
Egolf cited a Gallup poll from March 1996 that showed that 68 percent of Americans opposed same-sex marriage and just 27 percent approved of it. Late last year, Gallup found that 46 percent of Americans opposed same-sex marriage, versus 53 percent who support it.
Acceptance of same-sex marriage seems sure to grow more: 18- to 29-year-olds surveyed in the more recent Gallup poll supported it 73 percent to 26 percent.
On Thursday, Attorney General Kathleen Kane, a Democrat, called the law unconstitutional and said she refuses to defend it. That likely leaves its defense to Gov. Tom Corbett, a Republican who lines up with the national party platform that supports a constitutional amendment “defining marriage as the union of one man and one woman.” Corbett has been silent on whether he will fight the lawsuit.
The House approved Egolf’s amendment, 177-16, after an effort to deem it unconstitutional failed, 171-29. The Senate took it up Oct. 1, 1996, and passed it, 43-5.
During floor debates, opponents – all Democrats but one – knew they were outnumbered.
“I know the vote today will probably be overwhelming, the same way the vote in a southern legislature years ago would have been overwhelming in discriminating against black minorities,” then-Sen. Vincent Fumo, D-Philadelphia, told colleagues. “That does not make the vote right. It is still wrong.”
Rep. Mark Cohen, D-Philadelphia, warned that passage of the measure would speed up federal court scrutiny, and that an eventual U.S. Supreme Court review would be influenced by what he predicted would be rejections by a Pennsylvania district court and the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
Supporters were undaunted.
“I think that we need to say to ourselves, `If not now, when?”’ argued then-Rep. David King, R-Mercer. “I would say to you that it is time for us now to speak out for those values that have brought us to this great commonwealth through the past, ... that today’s values will be tomorrow’s future here in Pennsylvania.”