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Holdout Pennsylvania Pelted With Gay Marriage Lawsuits

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Holdout Pennsylvania Pelted With Gay Marriage Lawsuits

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Holdout Pennsylvania Pelted With Gay Marriage Lawsuits

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ARUN RATH, HOST:

It's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR West. I'm Arun Rath.

In June, the U.S. Supreme Court ruling on the Defense of Marriage Act said that the federal government must recognize same-sex marriages from states that allow them. Since the decision, couples in states which do not have filed a flurry of lawsuits.

WHYY's Emma Jacobs reports on conditions that are ripe for litigation in Pennsylvania where a couple recently filed the fifth lawsuit since the Supreme Court decision.

EMMA JACOBS, BYLINE: In July, a rogue county clerk outside Philadelphia started granting marriage licenses to gays and lesbians, defying a state ban. Under a Jewish wedding canopy, two brides signed the very first marriage certificate issued to a same-sex couple in the state of Pennsylvania. Their wedding video shows Dee Spagnuolo and Sasha Ballen and their three young children surrounded by friends and family holding umbrellas.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: It is now with great pleasure that I pronounce you spouses for life and legally married in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. And before they get to kiss, one more order of business...

JACOBS: Traditionally, in Jewish weddings, the groom stomps on a symbolic glass, marking the end of the ceremony. It turns out that's tougher in heels.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: I did at my wedding.

(SOUNDBITE OF GLASS BREAKING; CHEERING)

JACOBS: Pennsylvania filed suit against the clerk in Montgomery County. He issued more than 100 licenses before a court told him to stop. The clerk argues that after the Supreme Court's decision, he believes denying these couples marriage licenses would violate the Constitution.

Nils Frederiksen, spokesman for Pennsylvania Governor Tom Corbett, says that wasn't the clerk's call to make.

NILS FREDERIKSEN: We are a government of laws, and the process is there to change laws or challenge laws. And that issue - these issues are not solved by individual public officials deciding based on their own personal opinions what to do and what not to do.

JACOBS: Spagnuolo and Ballen are among two dozen couples who have asked the state to recognize their marriage licenses. Their lawyer, David Cohen, thinks one reason Pennsylvania has had so much legal activity in state and federal courts is location.

DAVID COHEN: You have a lot of people living here seeing that their neighbors are getting something that they aren't.

JACOBS: Pennsylvania remains the only state in the northeast which does not yet allow same-sex partnerships. A judge in New Jersey ruled last week that New Jersey, which has civil unions, must begin recognizing marriages. Governor Chris Christie has appealed.

Brian Moulton of Human Rights Campaign says that since the Supreme Court's decision, couples have filed dozens of constitutional challenges to state laws around the country.

BRIAN MOULTON: Because those arguments are the same, it's less about, you know, identifying a particular state where it's the right argument, but rather a place where, you know, there's perhaps the greatest likelihood of success before the courts.

JACOBS: The ACLU has thrown its weight behind suits in Pennsylvania, Virginia and North Carolina in efforts to set precedents that would legalize same-sex marriage throughout the country. It expects federal judges in these regions will be more receptive. Opponents of same-sex marriage in Pennsylvania say they would rather see efforts in the state legislature.

Randy Wenger is the counsel for the Pennsylvania Family Institute.

RANDY WENGER: We believe this is an issue that should be decided legislatively. We should debate it as a society. And ultimately, the best place in a democracy to deal with difficult issues is in our legislature.

JACOBS: On Thursday, the state's first openly gay man elected to the Pennsylvania legislature, Representative Brian Sims, introduced a marriage bill in the state House of Representatives. For NPR News, I'm Emma Jacobs in Philadelphia.

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