HARRISBURG — Pennsylvania and New Jersey are on tracks that could lead to the Northeast being the first full region in the country to legalize gay marriage — but the routes are hardly parallel and the horsepower anything but equal.
A flurry of recent court decisions has gay couples in New Jersey, where same-sex marriage has long been debated, hurrying to make wedding plans for when they can legally marry starting Monday — even as a moderate Republican governor with apparent presidential aspirations appeals.
Across the Delaware River in Pennsylvania, advocates are pecking away at a 1996 gay marriage ban by introducing bills in the Legislature, defiantly issuing marriage licenses in localities and taking the issue to court — with few people conceding the tactics will work anytime soon in a big state with a socially conservative spine.
“I don’t think it is going to happen next year. ... It’s going to take leadership from the top,” said state Rep. Mike Fleck, an openly gay Republican who represents a rural, conservative district in Huntingdon County, nestled in the Allegheny Mountains.
The different approaches — and levels of success — in the two neighboring states illustrate the many ways the effort to legalize same-sex marriage is playing out nationally in the months after the U.S. Supreme Court struck down parts of a federal law that restricted the rights of gay couples.
In recent weeks, at least eight county clerks in New Mexico have begun issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples while state courts wrestle with the implications of the high court ruling. Similarly, in Pennsylvania, a suburban Philadelphia court clerk issued 174 licenses to gay couples before a state judge ordered him to stop. Gay marriage bans are being contested in multiple states’ courts and legislatures, while others are more narrowly focused. A lesbian couple who legally wed in Massachusetts and moved to Pennsylvania have sued to have their marriage recognized in their new home state. A federal judge ordered Ohio to recognize the out-of-state marriages of two gay couples on Ohio death certificates. And Oregon officials have declared that the state will recognize same-sex marriages of couples who wed in other states or countries.
If both New Jersey and Pennsylvania legalize same-sex marriage, it would be law across a nine-state region that is home to more than 55 million people, or nearly a fifth of the nation’s population. Just below the Northeast, Maryland, Delaware and Washington, D.C., also allow gay marriage.
The debate in New Jersey, an overwhelmingly urban, Democratic state with a popular Republican governor, stretches back more than a decade. The state had already recognized civil unions, and on Friday, the state Supreme Court upheld an order for same-sex marriages to begin at 12:01 a.m. Monday. The court said it will allow weddings to proceed while it considers an appeal by Gov. Chris Christie.
Meanwhile, leaders of the Legislature’s Democratic majority plan a postelection vote on overriding Christie’s veto of a 2012 gay marriage bill, although no previous Christie veto has been overridden.
In Pennsylvania, where the first openly gay legislator was elected and Fleck came out of the closet last year, expectations are lower. Gov. Tom Corbett is a Republican, and the GOP controls both houses in the Legislature.
Fleck blamed demographics for the traditionally low profile of gay rights in the Legislature. While polls may show statewide support for gay marriage, he said, legislative constituents in Pennsylvania’s vast rural and Appalachian areas — bookended by the more liberal hubs of Pittsburgh and Philadelphia — do not share that viewpoint.
“It’s certainly not the majority of my constituents,” he said.
Fleck, who had been married to a woman, left that relationship in 2011 and came out in an interview with his local newspaper in December shortly after he was re-elected. At the time, he was the nation’s only openly gay Republican legislator. Rep. Brian Sims, a lawyer and former Bloomsburg University football team captain who came out to his teammates during his final semester, introduced a gay marriage bill just this week and predicted that victory is not far off.
“In about 15 months, we’re going to have a new governor who’s going to be signing this bill into law,” the Philadelphia Democrat said, referring to the large field of Democrats who want to challenge Corbett’s 2014 re-election bid.
Corbett publicly opposes the legalization of same-sex marriage but refuses to say in advance that he would veto such a bill, his spokesman said. Lawmakers have made clear that gay marriage is not recognized in Pennsylvania. Changes approved by a lopsided, bipartisan majority in 1996 limited marriage to one man and one woman and declared that same-sex marriages legally performed elsewhere are void in Pennsylvania. The state also does not recognize civil unions.
Five lawsuits involving gay marriage have been filed in federal and state courts following the U.S. Supreme Court decision, including two that seek to overturn Pennsylvania’s ban on constitutional grounds.
Gay marriage proponents received an unexpected boost in July when state Attorney General Kathleen Kane, a Democrat, announced that she believed the state ban was unconstitutional and that she would not defend it in court. Corbett subsequently hired former state Supreme Court Justice William Lamb to represent the administration in those cases.
Shortly afterward Kane’s bombshell, Montgomery County Register of Wills D. Bruce Hanes in suburban Philadelphia began issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples, some of whom were married by at least two mayors in other parts of the state. A judge ordered Hanes to stop issuing the licenses in September and the county appealed to the state Supreme Court.
James D. Esseks, an American Civil Liberties Union lawyer and the group’s lead attorney in the successful challenge of the federal Defense of Marriage Act, said the litigation and legislation will win new protections for gay couples while building a foundation for a favorable Supreme Court ruling on the constitutional issues.
“Nobody knows,” he said, “which case is going to be the one.”