Do PA Mayors Performing Marriage Have Ethical Responsibilities Regarding the Legal Status of LGBTQ Couples?

As I read about Braddock Mayor John Fetterman performing a wedding ceremony for two gay men from Regent Square, I had mixed reactions. On the one hand, it is an act of civil disobedience designed to create a more equal society and I support that step. But on the other hand, it puts an LGBTQ couple in a murky no-man’s land legally and there are just so many potential consequences to consider that I’m unsure.

Image: CBSPittsburgh
Image: CBSPittsburgh

This morning, I also read a pretty comprehensive piece about the “costs” of same sex divorce. The attorneys estimate that a divorce can easily cost a same sex couple twice what a straight couple pays, much much more if there are children involved. Why? Well because its new legal territory so it literally takes more time, more motions to address the various issues.

So I’m curious – do these renegade mayors have an ethical duty to make sure the couples they marry – the LGBTQ pioneers – fully understand the consequences of their decision? We know that the mayors are on the right side of history, but that’s not going to be much comfort when someone loses custody of a child, loses a job, loses a house, loses years of their life, or even simply faces the reality that without completing power of attorney documents – they can travel to say North Carolina and have no legal recognitions whatsoever.

The civil rights movement has its spur of the moment heroes, but it also has a long legacy of educating participants about civil disobedience and helping them understand what they faced as well as how to handle it. That’s been a major complaint of mine about the activists community in Pittsburgh – the simple lack of awareness of police procedures which ends up obfuscating that reasons for the protest.

In many communities of faith, the minister requires a couple to undergo a form of counseling – in some cases, just a meeting and in others a more formal program. It is a requirement and people are free to find another place to be married if they don’t wish to participate. There’s no counseling requirement for a civil marriage.

But these are not actual marriages, are they? The State does not recognize them and the federal government does not recognize them.  But what if that changes? Wow – can you imagine how even more complicated things will be?

Social change requires pioneers and people willing to risk themselves for the greater good. The problem is that I’m not convinced that ANYONE is educating people about the attendant legal consquences of these protests. I’ve met leaders in our community who as recently as June didn’t know that divorce was not an option or simply thought it could be handled with prenuptial paperwork. They weren’t being jerks – they just hadn’t thought about it. And I know a lot of people who don’t understand second-parent adoption or how the Obama regulations on domestic partnership impact hospitals that accept Medicare. Then there are the many, many folks in Pennsylvania who think its illegal to fire someone for being gay. For Pete’s sake, a lawyer stood up at a marriage equality rally and told the crowd that marriage equality would resolve adoption issues – NO! That’s not true.

And if you ask the LGBTQ Family Law attornies, their advice to PA residents is not to marry and certainly to take care of legal matters such as power of attorney, adoption, wills, etc. But over and over again people tell me “We can’t afford a lawyer.”

While I believe them, I want to say “You can’t not afford a lawyer.”

In my mind, an ally is with you to the end. There’s little risk for a mayor to marry a couple – perhaps political risk. But they aren’t going to be arrested. Their personal lives aren’t impacted. They won’t have to pay a lawyer. My understanding, again limited, of many civil rights actions is that they had lawyers in place to support participants who were detained or arrested. They had funds. They tapped into the privilege of their allies. Not that it was perfect or worked out all the time or prevented horrific outcomes, but it certainly was intentional support.

I don’t see any of that right now. I see people losing sight of their own privilege and forgetting that they aren’t going to be  dealing with legal quagmires for years. And frankly that really annoys and saddens me.

Being on the right side of history is one thing. Leaving broken families along the path is quite another.



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