Pa. Registar of Wills Marries Same-sex Couples Against State Ban

State Attorneys for Health Department Suing

Pennsylvania is one of thirty-five states to hold a 1996 ban on same-sex marriage by either state law or constitutional amendment. But this current Pennsylvania law similar to the one that in late June overturned DOMA (Defense of Marriage Act) defining marriage as a union only between a man and a woman. It also prohibits Pennsylvania from recognizing same-sex marriages in other parts of the country.

In Defiance of State Law

However, that hasn’t stopped D. Bruce Hanes,the Montgomery County Register of Wills from issuing marriage licenses, although they have no legal effect, to same-sex couples.  As Register of  Wills, Hanes is also a clerk of Orphans Court, and is responsible for issuing marriage licenses and administering adoptions.

In the first week after the Supreme Court ruling on DOMA, Hanes gave out more media interviews than same-sex marriage licenses, according to an interview with MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow on July 24.  To date, however, he has issued more than 100 licenses to gay couples and is now being faced by lawyers who filed in Commonwealth Court for “separation-of-powers for the state Health Department and Governor Tom Corbett.”

Causes to Punish

Shortly after Attorney General Kathleen Kane announced in a July 11 press conference that she would not defend the state’s gay marriage ban after the American Civil Liberties Union announced its lawsuit, on behalf of Pennsylvania’s gay plaintiffs, Hanes started issuing licenses.

The filing lawyers argued that county officials who flout the law “may be guilty of a misdemeanor for each act of neglect or refusal.” The Corbett administration wants a judge to order Hanes to immediately cease giving licenses to gay couples. It is afraid also that same-sex couples may apply for benefits only reserved for married couples.

“Ours is a government of laws, not one of pubic officials exercising their will as they believe the law should be or will be. Only the courts can declare a law unconstitutional and suspend it.”

Chaos Ahead?

Hanes, according to Bruce Castor, Republican County Commissioner, says “Mr. Hanes has overstepped his authority dramatically.”  A Democrat, Hanes, 66, feels he “is doing the appropriate thing at the particular time in our cultural background,”according to Harvey Portner, a Cheltenham Township Commissioner.

Defended Him As A Person Despite His Actions

Described as a popular, avuncular-type man with a Romantic streak, Hanes spent more than a decade as Co-Chair of the Cheltenham Democrats. It’s unusual for a register of wills to be a lawyer, but Hanes’ first deputy Joan H. Nagel said he brought needed skills to the office: “he’s very organized and methodical.”

Hanes believes it’s unconstitutional to pay attention to someone’s gender and will continue to hand out marriage licenses as he is determined to do what he thinks is right:  upholding the Constitution of the United States of America.