Originally published on Advocate.com October 24 2003 12:00 AM ET
The Pennsylvania supreme court has agreed to decide whether Philadelphia may grant benefits to same-sex partners of city employees. The justices said they will hear the city's appeal of a lower court ruling that forbade the city from recognizing same-sex "life partnerships." A 1998 package of laws amended the definition of the term "marital status" to include "life partner," thereby allowing the granting of benefits to same-sex partners of city employees who signed a partnership affidavit. Former mayor Ed Rendell, now Pennsylvania's governor, signed the domestic-partner bills in May 1998 after they were narrowly approved by the city council. A group of seven city taxpayers later sued, charging that the city did not have the power to create a new marital status. A Philadelphia common pleas judge sided with the city, but a commonwealth court overturned the laws in August 2002, saying they usurped the power of the state to regulate marriage. "We hold that the city was without authority to legislate in the field of domestic relations by defining and creating a new marital status," senior judge Joseph Doyle wrote in a decision that also struck down a city ordinance that allowed domestic partners to transfer title or obtain joint title to real estate without paying the city's transfer tax. In its appeal to the state supreme court, the city accused the commonwealth court of "ignoring differences in purpose and effect between state marriage laws and the ordinances."
About 350 couples have registered as domestic partners since the laws took effect, according to the Philadelphia Commission on Human Relations, a city agency. In accepting the case October 8, the supreme court said it would allow a friend-of-the-court brief to be filed on behalf of numerous civil rights groups that support the laws, including the Center for Lesbian and Gay Civil Rights and the American Civil Liberties Union. Stacey Sobel, executive director of the Center for Lesbian and Gay Civil Rights, lauded the high court's decision to hear the case. "What the city's ordinances do is provide very limited benefits to people who live and work in the city, and that...should be within the city's legal
authority to determine," Sobel said. But Dennis M. Abrams, who represents the taxpayers, said the city does not have the "authority to legislate in the area of marriage."