The decision last Monday by House Republican lawmakers to drop plans to attach a set of anti-gay measures to a popular adoption bill may have been a retreat in the state’s political culture wars, but it hardly was a surrender. Democrats and Republicans say that when the battle heats up again, look for some of those proposals to pass into law.
A conservative state representative had readied a set of amendments that would have: further tightened a state law that already explicitly prohibits gay marriage, repealed Gov. Ed Rendell’s expansion of benefits in state workers’ union contracts to same-sex couples, and prevented gay partners from adopting children.
Rep. Jerry Birmelin, R-Wayne, chair of the House Children and Youth Committee, wanted to tack on the measures to a House bill to improve adoption procedures for disabled foster children.
Legislative staff drafted more than 50 amendments that addressed those issues from a number of different angles, but after a two-hour closed-door meeting of the GOP caucus in which more than a dozen members spoke up, Birmelin agreed to let the adoption bill go through unencumbered.
In return, he received reassurances from Republican leaders that his proposals will be revisited, and probably in the coming few months, he said.
“I have the commitment from (House Majority Leader) Sam Smith and (Speaker) John Perzel that it will,” Birmelin said Thursday.
Odds are good that any measure making legislators appear to be defending marriage’s turf from encroachment by non-heterosexual couples will be welcomed warmly by the House, which in 1996 out-lawed same-sex nuptials by a vote of 198-3. A poll released this week showed state voters opposed gay marriage by a 2-to-1 margin.
Birmelin is concerned that some local county clerks might ignore the law and take it upon themselves to grant marriage licenses to gay couples, an eventuality he wants to prevent with a law that specifically gives the state “preeminence in the regulation of marriage.”
He also believes Rendell exceeded his authority by consenting to language in two union contracts that gives some state employees family leave and sick leave for their gay partners. Rendell said he would veto any law that rolls back those benefits, but Smith’s spokesman Steve Miskin predicts a vote will reach “damn close to veto-proof numbers.”
“My guess is,” said House Minority Leader H. William DeWeese, “that Mr. Birmelin would have enough votes to carry the day on almost all of his issues, notwithstanding the fact that he may be wrong.”
The Greene County representative counts himself among the Democrats from rural districts who have, in the past, voted with conservatives on such legislation.
Another of the Birmelin amendments would have banned gays from adopting, and in so doing reversed the effects of a 2002 state Supreme Court ruling that allowed both couples in a same-sex relationship to adopt the same child.
Stacey L. Sobel, executive director of the Philadelphia-based Center for Lesbian and Gay Civil Rights, said Birmelin is “not accepting the reality of today’s world” where many gay couples are successfully raising children.
“I think what we have is a few members of our Legislature who are, unfortunately, focusing on taking rights away from people instead of focusing on issues that are really critical to our state, such as education, the economy and jobs,” Sobel said.
At the end of last week, Birmelin said he no longer favored a blanket prohibition on adoption by gays, and Miskin said the Republican leadership was “not going to touch it,” at least for now.
Revisiting gay marriage, on the other hand, may prove irresistible as a chance to cast largely symbolic votes to further shrink the infinitesimally tiny chance of a gay couple landing a Pennsylvania marriage license.