Pennsylvania high court looks at domestic-partner benefits law
April 15 2004 12:00 AM ET
The Pennsylvania supreme court will examine whether a Philadelphia city ordinance granting benefits to same-sex partners of municipal employees usurps Pennsylvania law. Hearing arguments Tuesday, Chief Justice Ralph J. Cappy cautioned both parties that the issue is not a religious matter but rather a question of whether the 1998 ordinance--struck down by a commonwealth court in August 2002--was preempted by state law. William Devlin, director of the Urban Family Council, challenged the law, saying the city council didn't have the authority to extend benefits to same-sex partners. Cappy said the city hypothetically has the right to grant benefits to a monkey owned by a married couple. "If you're focused on benefits and you're going to give benefits to a couple with a monkey, why can't you give benefits to a same-sex couple?" Cappy asked. Abrams said his concerns were more over what the city was doing by acknowledging the same-sex partnerships. "You have a government stamp of approval on this relationship," he said. No matter which side wins at the state supreme court level, Devlin said he expects the case to go to the U.S. Supreme Court.
A 1998 package of laws amended the city's definition of the term marital status to include "life partner," granting benefits to same-sex partners of city employees who sign a partnership affidavit. Former mayor Ed Rendell, now Pennsylvania's governor, signed the bills after the city council narrowly approved them. Since the ordinance went into effect, 374 partnerships have been registered, according to the Philadelphia Commission on Human Relations. The city continues to grant the benefits. Barbara Mather, an attorney representing the city, maintained that the ordinance did not infringe on anything laid out by state law; the ordinance protects same-sex partners of city employees from discrimination, grants them benefits, and exempts them from the real estate transfer tax. "They are not redefining marriage," Mather said, adding that couples had not been flocking to get recognized.
After the hearing, Abrams said he didn't think his arguments had been well-received but added that he thought the court would likely strike down the law once it considered all the factors. Stacey L. Sobel, executive director of the Philadelphia-based Center for Lesbian and Gay Civil Rights, which is participating in the defense of the law, said she thought opponents of the law were simply putting out red herrings and that the ordinance doesn't supersede state law. "The law does not confer any of the benefits of marriage," she said.