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Pennsylvania House passes bill to amend outdated same-sex marriage ban

Amanda Berg
For Spotlight PA

Rep. Malcolm Kenyatta’s job at home is to take out the trash. When his husband does the laundry, he folds the clothes that come out of the dryer.

These mundane chores began after getting married in 2022, 8 years after same-sex marriage was legalized across the country.

A bill updating state law to reflect the marriage of Kenyatta (D-Philadelphia) and the other 21,782 same-sex marriages in Pennsylvania passed the Democratic-controlled state House Tuesday.

“If you still want to fight a cultural war, if you’re still upset about my marriage, that is for you, for your God, for your diary, for whatever,” Kenyatta, the prime sponsor of the bill, said on the House floor before the vote.

The bill would codify same-sex marriage into state law, making gay marriages valid regardless of federal law. It passed 133-68 with bipartisan support on the House floor. The Republican-led state Senate now has control of the bill’s future.

Senate Republican spokesperson Kate Flessner declined to comment on the bill’s Senate trajectory.

In 2014, 11 same-sex couples, one widow and two teenage children challenged Pennsylvania’s ban on same-sex marriage and won. U.S. Supreme Court case Obergefell v. Hodges legalized same-sex marriage at the federal level in 2015, making any statutes upholding the former law null and void.

Still, state law officially defines marriage as “a civil contract by which one man and one woman take each other for husband and wife.” It categorizes same-sex marriages as invalid, even when pursued in another state. The line wasn’t added until 1996, when Republicans held both legislative chambers.

While federal courts made the state law dormant, members of the majority-conservative U.S. Supreme Court have characterized Obergefell as a mistake.

Justice Clarence Thomas said they “should reconsider” the same-sex marriage case in his concurring opinion for Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, which overturned the federal right to abortion access. Justice Samuel Alito spoke out against Obergefell in February.

If the Supreme Court overturned Obergefell, at least 25 states would go back to banning same-sex marriage due to having both constitutional and statutory bans, according to data from the National Conference of State Legislatures. Five more states with only statutory bans would also outlaw same-sex marriage, including Pennsylvania.

But statutes can be overturned by legislators in a single legislative session.

“I don’t need your respect. I don’t need your acceptance. I don’t need you to understand my relationship or for it to line up with what is taught in your particular faith,” Kenyatta said. “What I want, and what this bill is about, is Pennsylvania, our laws, reflecting settled jurisprudence, which said I’m able to go home to the man that I love and call him my husband because he is.”

Kenyatta has introduced legislation codifying same-sex marriage every session since being elected in 2019, and this is the first time his proposal has passed out of the House.

Gallup says 7.6% of U.S. adults identify as LGBTQ+, with data collected via phone survey in 2023. Census data from 2020 reports 40,290 same-sex households in Pennsylvania, with 54% of them married.

Rep. Paul Schemel (R-Franklin) and Rep. Stephanie Borowicz (R-Clinton/Union) spoke out before the vote to disapprove of the bill.

“This is not hate, though the news media will portray it as that,” Borowicz said. “This is the Judeo-Christian values and principles this nation is founded on. And marriage and family are one of those bedrocks.”

Historically, the institution of marriage predates Christianity, and the Catholic church did not take on strict religious rules for marriage until the 16th century.

A treaty approved by George Washington and later ratified by the U.S. Senate under John Adams stated “The government of the United States is not in any sense founded on the Christian religion.”

The Establishment Clause of the First Amendment in the U.S. Constitution forbids the government from making any law respecting an establishment of religion, the meaning of which has been largely debated.

Rep. Jessica Benham (D-Allegheny) said religion and queerness do not have to contradict each other.

“I am a proud queer woman and a proud pastor’s daughter. My faith teaches me that we are all made in God’s image, fearfully and wonderfully made, and that God accepts and loves us as we are,” Benham said before the vote.

She is one of three out LGBTQ+ members of the LGBTQ+ Equality Caucus, along with Kenyatta and Rep. La’Tasha Mayes (D-Allegheny). All three sponsored the marriage equality bill.

Sarah Nicell | WITF