Overturned ban on gay marriage hits close to home

Published May 22, 2014 at 3:39 pm (Updated May 22, 2014 at 3:39 pm)

Deb and Susan Whitewood were sitting on their back porch, the same place where the couple decided to file a federal lawsuit against Pennsylvania’s ban on gay marriage, when they learned the ban was overturned May 20.

“I’m terrifically excited,” Deb Whitewood said. “This isn’t a ruling in favor of our family, but a ruling for all of the gay and lesbian families in the state of Pennsylvania.”

The South Fayette Township couple, two of their children, a widow and 10 other couples challenged the state’s law barring same-sex marriages. U.S. District Judge John E. Jones III called the plaintiffs courageous in his ruling.

“We are so excited to be a part of history,” Susan Whitewood said. “This is validation that we are equal. It’s enormous.”

Before filing the federal lawsuit, the Whitewoods attempted to file for a marriage license at Washington County Courthouse last June 24. Their request was denied, but that didn’t stop them. The couple married in Maryland last October on their 20th anniversary.

After quickly “skimming” the 39-page decision, Deb Whitewood said the ruling recognizes marriages performed legally in any of the other 17 states that previously had given legal status to gay marriage. Oregon became the 18th state to legalize same-sex marriages May 19. Pennsylvania became the 19th. State marriage bans have been falling around the country since the U.S. Supreme Court last year struck down part of the federal Defense of Marriage Act. The Pennsylvania lawsuit, filed last July, was the first known challenge to the state law that effectively banned same-sex marriages and the recognition of gay marriages from other states.

Gov. Tom Corbett’s office defended the law after Attorney General Kathleen Kane refused, on grounds that it was unconstitutional. An appeal of Jones’ ruling is likely.

Same-sex couples and their supporters around the state were celebrating May 20.

David Huffner and his husband, Jason Schneider, have been together for the last 15 years. At 54, Huffner doubted he’d witness this until he was in his 80s.

“I was pleasantly surprised,” Huffner, a member of the board of the Gay Lesbian and Straight Education Network in Pittsburgh, said of the ruling. “Things like this take a lot of time.”

Huffner said he immediately started to cry when he learned the ban had been overturned.

“It’s an emotional moment,” he said.

Huffner and Schneider, of Upper St. Clair, were married in August 2011 on the New York side of Niagara Falls. While he said family and friends have always embraced he and Schneider as a couple, he said the ruling affirms their relationship.

“It’s remarkable to see this swing in public opinion.”

The Washington County Courthouse was closed May 20 in observance of the primary election, but Kathy Cameron, chairwoman of Washington County Gay-Straight Alliance Inc., believes people would have been waiting there in the hours leading up to the release of the decision. She expected same-sex couples to begin filing for marriage licenses May 21.

“A lot of counties were instructed to be ready in case there was an immediate rush,” she said.

Cameron said the ruling has made her loved ones and friends “equal.” Like others, she anxiously awaited Jones’ decision and was thrilled when she received a text message notifying her the ban was overturned.

“I’m pretty pumped. I can’t wipe the smile off my face. (Same-sex couples) have the same opportunities as everyone else in terms of recognition,” she said. “They are now first-class citizens.”

Deb and Susan Whitewood said they were optimistic about the outcome.

“It’s the right time for a change,” said Deb Whitewood. “It’s time to move forward with change.”

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