Penn Law School lecturers Fernando Chang-Muy and Len Rieser have been a couple for over 32 years. The day they first met was on Chang-Muy’s mother’s birthday, which, he jokes, was “an easy anniversary to remember.”
They have a 21-year-old daughter who is currently an undergraduate student at Temple University. They have joint bank accounts. They cook dinner together. Yet, they are not married.
That is because they reside in Pennsylvania, and under state laws their marriage cannot be recognized because they are both men. In fact, not only is same-sex marriage prohibited by Pennsylvania, but under the law even same-sex marriages entered into legally in other states and countries are not recognized.
But Chang-Muy and Rieser hope to be a part of the force that changes how marriage is recognized in their home state.
Earlier this month, the two Penn Law lecturers — along with 21 other plaintiffs — joined in a lawsuit against Gov. Tom Corbett, Secretary of the Department of Health Michael Wolf and Attorney General Kathleen Kane, demanding that the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania overturn the state’s ban on same-sex marriage.
Quoting the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Windsor v. United States — which overturned the Defense of Marriage Act — their July 9 complaint against Pennsylvania officials decried the same-sex marriage ban as “undermin[ing] the plaintiff couples’ ability to achieve their life goals and dreams … and deny[ing] them a ‘dignity and status of immense import.’”
The complaint noted that this legislation “adversely impacts” same-sex couples by excluding them from many legal protections afforded to opposite-sex marriages, such as accessing a partner’s social security retirement benefits and receiving inheritance tax exemptions.
Represented by a coalition of attorneys that includes the American Civil Liberties Union, the ACLU of Pennsylvania and Penn Law professor Seth Kreimer, the plaintiffs are demanding that the federal court strike down Pennsylvania’s “discriminatory treatment.”
“The Supreme Court decided at the federal level that the denial of the right to marry was a profound measure of disrespect for gay and lesbian citizens,” Kreimer said. “The same reasoning seems to me to apply to the state of Pennsylvania.”
‘Acknowledge what is’
For Reiser and Chang-Muy, one of the primary goals of this lawsuit is for the state to “acknowledge what is,” Reiser said — that they are a married couple.
“We have been together for 32 years … we have a house, we love each other, we have a spiritual and emotional connection and a marriage law in Pennsylvania would simply ratify, recognize what we have functionally been doing for 32 years,” Chang-Muy said.
“I think that we’ve acted in every respect as a married couple would,” Reiser added. Recognizing our partnership as marriage “would be a clear way for other people to understand what the relationship is,” he said.
Chang-Muy added that it is sometimes difficult for society to recognize how similar a same-sex couple is to an opposite-sex married couple.
“Assuming you have a mom and dad, when people see your mom and dad they say ‘how are you doing, how’s your child.’ When people see gay couples, they might say ‘are you still together’ because marriage hasn’t been recognized,” Chang-Muy said. You wouldn’t ask the same question of married couples, he added.
Reiser and Chang-Muy also said that being married would be beneficial for their daughter.
“It would have been a lot easier along the way and it will be a lot easier in the future for [our daughter] to be from a family where her parents are married and it’s legally a family just like any other family,” Reiser said, “instead of some construct that doesn’t have a name.”
One of the lawsuit’s defendants, Attorney General Kane, has expressed concern over Pennsylvania’s current law.
In a statement made two days after the lawsuit was filed, Kane said that she would not defend Corbett in the suit because she “cannot ethically defend the constitutionality of Pennsylvania’s version of DOMA.”
“The important thing is not that [Kane] says that she’s not going to defend the governor and the secretary of health,” said Mary Catherine Roper, a 1993 Law School graduate and ACLU attorney working on the case. “The important thing is that she said the law is unconstitutional and she won’t say otherwise.”
“That’s a big deal for the top law enforcement officer in the state to say ‘I agree, the law is unconstitutional,” she added.
However, some have questioned the lawsuit in the first place, and Kane’s recusal from defending the governor.
Frank Schubert, political director of the National Organization for Marriage — an organization opposing same sex marriage — told The New York Times that part of his “challenge” will be “to let the court see they’re not going to get away with this without a massive public revolt.”
Yet, others remain hopeful for the court’s decision.
“I’m optimistic,” Kreimer said. “I think that ultimately marriage equality and freedom to marry will come to Pennsylvania.”
Staff writer Alex Zimmermann contributed reporting.Comments powered by Disqus
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