Senate Bill 935 was introduced June 5 and referred to the Judiciary Committee.
The bill would repeal the ban on same-sex marriage that the legislature approved in 1996, and would amend the definition of marriage in Title 23 of the Pennsylvania Consolidated Statutes to read as “a civil contract between two people who enter into matrimony.”
The law currently defines marriage as “a civil contract by which one man and one woman take each other for husband and wife.”
The legislation further clarifies that the adoption of marriage equality should not be “construed to compel a religious sect to perform same-sex marriage” and proposes that all marriages legally performed outside of Pennsylvania should be considered legal in the state.
Leach said he’s realistic that the bill will face tough opposition in the Republican-controlled Senate, but that he’s trying to look further down the road.
“Short-term, it’s going to be a very tough fight, but in the long term, it’s inevitable. My goal right now is to speed up the day when there’s marriage equality in Pennsylvania,” Leach said. “It’s going to happen for so many reasons eventually, and my goal this year is to get the conversation started, maybe have some hearings on the bill. Public support for marriage equality is growing in part due to people’s exposure to the idea, so that’s what we’re trying to do now — get people exposed to it, and if they have some discomfort they can work through it. Right now, I want to accelerate what I consider to be inevitable.”
Leach said the public response to his introduction of the legislation has fallen overwhelmingly on the side of marriage equality.
“It’s been about 90-percent positive. There are of course a few colorful objectors, but I’ve been surprised that geographically and in terms of age groups, the support’s been pretty uniform. It’s encouraging.”
Legislative backing for the bill, however, has been less pronounced. The legislation has one cosponsor, Sen. Larry Farnese (D-1st Dist.), and while Leach said he’s spoken with other lawmakers who are in favor of marriage equality, many are hesitant to publicly back it.
“There are some legislators who’ve told me that they support it kind of secretly but are worried politically,” he said. “I can’t speak to their districts because I’m sure they know them better than I do, but I think people may overestimate the blowback they’ll get on this. There is a level of nervousness, which is to be expected, but having this discussion out in the open is a way to cure that nervousness.”
The 14-member Judiciary Committee is headed by Sen. Stewart Greenleaf (R-12th Dist.), who has voted in favor of previous attempts to ban same-sex marriage in the state constitution.
Tyra Wallace, spokesperson for Greenleaf, said the committee may not meet again before the summer recess, which is expected at the end of June.
Leach agreed that the issue probably will not come before the committee until the fall, as the legislature is currently working on the state budget, which he said “has sucked the oxygen out of the room on anything else we’d like to work on.”
The state senate is also expected to consider a bill this session that would amend the state constitution to ban same-sex marriage.
State Sen. John Eichelberger (R-30th Dist.) announced last month that he would introduce such a bill, which he said is necessary to strengthen the 1996 law against possible legal challenges.
A similar bill was tabled in the Senate last session before it could reach a vote.
In order for the constitution to be amended, both chambers of the legislature would need to approve the bill in the same format in two consecutive legislative sessions, and it would then be posed to the public as a ballot question.
As of press time, Eichelberger had not yet introduced the measure.
Meanwhile, legislation to ban discrimination against LGBT people in Pennsylvania is currently waiting approval in the House Appropriations Committee.
House Bill 300 seeks to amend the Pennsylvania Human Relations Act to prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity in employment, housing and public accommodations in the state.
Gabe Speece, spokesperson for Rep. Dan Frankel (D-23rd Dist.), the prime sponsor of the legislation, said he doesn’t expect the committee to consider the bill until this fall.
“Realistically, it probably is not going to be taken up until after the budget,” Speece said. “The attention is on the state budget right now, so we’re probably not going to see any movement on this before the summer recess.”