This article was written by Colby Itkowitz of the Call Washington Bureau and features Angela D. Giampolo, Philly Gay Lawyer.
If anything were to happen to Scott Nichols, his 11-year-old adopted son would receive benefits, like his Social Security, but Nichols’ partner of 15 years would not.
That’s unlikely to change for the Philadelphia couple, both 51, unless the U.S. Supreme Court concludes broadly that marriage is a right and that all bans against same-sex marriage are unconstitutional.
Because Pennsylvania has a law defining marriage as between a man and a woman, other potential, more narrow rulings probably won’t have any immediate impact on Pennsylvania gay and lesbian couples.
The Supreme Court justices appeared split on gay marriage Tuesday during legal arguments. They take up a second case Wednesday and are expected to announce their opinions in June.
Nichols, his partner, Steve Berg, and their son, Henry, whom they adopted from Cambodia in 2002, stood outside the steps of the high court Tuesday amid cheers for “equality” and handmade posters with messages like, “Marriage is a Human Right NOT a Heterosexual Privilege,” and “Dear Scalia, YOLO” — a popular Internet meme that means “you only live once.”
They were there, they said, to show their son there’s support for marriage equality, with the hope that one day he’d tell his children about being there with their two grandfathers.
“When we ‘came out,’ people were trying to take away rights all the time, very basic rights like the right to get a job,” Nichols said. “And to think that we’re now talking about marriage … I didn’t think we’d get so far so fast.”
Over two days the Supreme Court is hearing oral arguments in separate cases dealing with the constitutionality of banning same-sex marriage.
The first case, dealing with the California voters’ 2008 ballot initiative that banned gay marriage, was argued Tuesday and is the one that could affect Pennsylvania — though many legal experts say that’s unlikely.
Pennsylvania is among 38 states that ban same-sex marriage. That would be nullified if the justices find such bans to be unconstitutional. But speculation among court-watchers Tuesday was that such a broad ruling won’t happen — based on questions raised during more than an hour of arguments.
Mason Lane is the chief of staff for state Rep. Brian Sims and a third-year Temple University law student. Sims, a Philadelphia Democrat, is a longtime gay activist and the first openly gay person to be elected to the Pennsylvania state House. Lane said it’s most likely the Supreme Court will rule that California gay couples can marry, but not extend that to other states. If state bans are deemed unconstitutional, that would trigger an “intense, legal quagmire” as states attempt to appeal, he said.
“No matter what, we’re still a couple of years, probably more than five years, away from full marriage equality in Pennsylvania,” Lane said. Most states with marriage equality first had other laws protecting gay rights, such as nondiscrimination in employment or housing. Pennsylvania has none, Lane said.
Angela Giampolo, a Philadelphia attorney who specializes in gay rights, agreed. Concerns voiced by some justices about allowing more time to determine the impact of gay marriage on society underscored her prediction that the ruling would benefit California gay couples only, and not extend to all 50 states.
“I think from a social mores standpoint, it will have an impact because you will have a ton more married gay people,” she said. “[Gay marriage] will become more normalized more quickly,” and lawyers whose clients want to marry will be able to build cases based on the financial and family impact.
The second case regarding federal benefits for same-sex couples has virtually no impact on Pennsylvania couples. Even if the Supreme Court strikes down the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act — the federal law limiting marriage — then only couples living in the nine states that allow gay marriage would be eligible for federal benefits. The court hears that case today.