Things began looking up early last Tuesday morning. The American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania sent out notifications to supporters and media saying they expected a decision in their Whitewood v. Wolf case, which had challenged the Pennsylvania law defining marriage as between one man and one woman. And whatever the decision, they said, rallies had been planned across the commonwealth.
Then, around 2pm on that fateful day, the decision came: District Judge John E. Jones III ruled Pennsylvania’s Defense of Marriage Act unconstitutional, creating an immediate opening for members of the state’s LGBT community to get married, if they chose.
As Pennsylvania joined the rest of the northeastern states in which all citizens have an equal right to marriage, celebrations brought hundreds to City Hall and destinations like it all over the state. It was announced City Hall would begin certifying same-sex marriages immediately and would keep their doors open late to keep up with demand.
Meanwhile, legislators, activists and others who’d been working on this issue went on a press release extravaganza, one that included everyone from the left, the right, the religious, the secular. For the most part, those often affiliated with certain causes came down in foretold directions.
On the right, only large non-political nonprofits and agenda-driven hucksters spoke up.
“Today’s decision abandons that responsibility in favor of a new framework that places the desires of adults above the good of children and society as a whole,” declared Pennsylvania Family Institute president Michael Greer.
PW attempted to contact Greer numerous times for specifics on how children of same-sex couples are negatively affected by marriage equality, but did not get a response. Eventually, we were referred to their prior press releases about the issue, which decidedly did not say how children are negatively affected when raised by same sex couples. (Pro tip: Because they’re not.)
Archbishop Charles J. Chaput of Philadelphia, however, called the decision “a mistake with long-term consequences”—though was not specific about said consequences.
“Governor Corbett must appeal this outrageous decision!” wrote the American Family Association of Pennsylvania.
State politicians and political groups had a different tactic: Attack the decision as one made by an “activist judge.” PA GOP chairman Rob Gleason, for instance, did not come out against marriage equality, but said the state had been “dictated to by judicial fiat.”
A day later, Gov. Tom Corbett announced he would not challenge the decision, becoming only the second Republican governor in the country to make that call—something few could have imagined when, last year, the governor compared same-sex marriage to incest during a TV interview.
Much like his stance on voter ID legislation a month earlier, Corbett emitted a massive, sad shrug: He disagreed with the decision, he said, but his job required he rule via rule of law.
For that, you can thank both the timing of the decision, and the governor’s weak positioning in the upcoming election. In an election year which will largely be defined by the ruling Republican Party’s record on jobs and the economy (while they attempt to “nationalize” the issues, tying the state Democrats to the president and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid), the last thing Republicans want is to fight a social battle on the unpopular side—and one which, long-term, they cannot win, immediately obvious in the statements (and lack thereof) sent out after the decision.
Of the 27 men and women in the General Assembly who sponsored a Constitutional amendment to ban marriage equality in May 2013, for instance, only one released an official statement about the judicial ruling: State Rep. Daryl Metcalfe, the state’s most infamous anti-gay legislator. And in that statement, he pushed for new consideration of his resolution to amend the state Constitution.
“The appropriate forum to debate and discuss this important issue is the legislature, not the disconnected judiciary. Both the court’s decision and the governor’s decision not to appeal this ruling makes my legislation even more critical to allow state lawmakers to exercise their rightful responsibility and obligation to uphold the rule of law and the will of the people,” he said.
What’s particularly striking about the statements of the PA GOP, Corbett, Metcalfe and the deafening silence of 25 fellow state representatives (Rep. Hess, who also co-sponsored Metcalfe’s bill, is dead) is their focus on the rule of law—not the social implications.
“Corbett wants economic rather than cultural and social questions to be uppermost in voters’ minds, and keeping gay marriage out of the news works in that strategy,” says Dr. Randall Miller, a professor of politics and history at St. Joseph’s University in Philadelphia. “He is already tacking toward the middle in his stances on issues to become more moderate, in appearance at least, and reach the broad middle electorate.”
Tom Corbett is literally in a fight for his political life, a battle most believe he will lose. Marriage equality has been gaining traction with voters in Pennsylvania over the last several years—as it has with Americans across the nation—so, for the governor, last Tuesday’s decision was an inevitability. His re-election, however, is not.
“Those Republicans unhappy with Corbett’s decision not to defend the Defense of Marriage Act will grumble, but they have nowhere else to go in November so they will vote for Corbett or stay home,” continues Miller. “Most will hold their noses and pull the Corbett lever come Election Day.”
Metcalfe, too, did not impart his oft-anti-gay zealotry in the press release he put out on Wednesday—just the apparent idea that the legislature is more fit to define marriage than the judiciary. Which, if you think about it, is a win.
We’re at a point in state history where if you’re not part of an ideologically-driven nonprofit whose funding relies on your being in favor of social policy which will not exist in 20 years, you know better than to directly insult the LGBT community. Corbett learned it—over and over again—through awkward, dead-eyed public gaffes ridiculed throughout the country. It’s nice to see Pennsylvania getting along with its northeastern neighbors.