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Article updated: 7/24/2013 3:44 PM

Pennsylvania county defies state, allows gay marriages

Ellen Toplin, left, and Charlene Kurland, right, who obtained a marriage license at a Montgomery County office despite a state law banning such unions, meet with Nicola Cucinotta, center left, and Tamara Davis before they get their license, Wednesday, July 24, 2013, in Norristown, Pa. Five same-sex couples have obtained marriage licenses in the suburban Philadelphia county that is defying a state ban on such unions.

Ellen Toplin, left, and Charlene Kurland, right, who obtained a marriage license at a Montgomery County office despite a state law banning such unions, meet with Nicola Cucinotta, center left, and Tamara Davis before they get their license, Wednesday, July 24, 2013, in Norristown, Pa. Five same-sex couples have obtained marriage licenses in the suburban Philadelphia county that is defying a state ban on such unions.

 

Associated Press

Marcus Saitschenko, left, and James Goldstein obtain a marriage license at a Montgomery County office despite a state law banning such unions, Wednesday, July 24, 2013, in Norristown, Pa. Five same-sex couples have obtained marriage licenses in the suburban Philadelphia county that is defying a state ban on such unions.

Marcus Saitschenko, left, and James Goldstein obtain a marriage license at a Montgomery County office despite a state law banning such unions, Wednesday, July 24, 2013, in Norristown, Pa. Five same-sex couples have obtained marriage licenses in the suburban Philadelphia county that is defying a state ban on such unions.

 

Associated Press

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By Associated Press

NORRISTOWN, Pa. -- At least five same-sex couples obtained marriage licenses Wednesday in a suburban Philadelphia county that is defying a state ban on such unions.

Alicia Terrizzi and Loreen Bloodgood, of Pottstown, were the only couple to marry right away, exchanging vows in a park before a minister and their two young sons.

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"We're not setting out to be pioneers. We don't think our family is any different than anybody else," said Terrizzi, a 45-year-old teacher. "We've been waiting a long time for this."

The licenses issued Wednesday in Montgomery County are believed to be the first to same-sex couples in Pennsylvania, the only northeastern state without same-sex marriages or civil unions.

A 1996 Pennsylvania law defines marriage as a civil contract in which a man and a woman take each other as husband and wife, and it says same-sex marriages, even ones entered legally elsewhere, are void in Pennsylvania.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania filed a lawsuit this month seeking to overturn the law.

Officials in the affluent and increasingly Democratic county signaled this week that they would nevertheless grant licenses to same-sex couples.

The county officials and the same-sex couples who marry could find themselves in court if Republican Gov. Tom Corbett or other state officials challenge their actions. In other states with same-sex marriage bans, licenses issued by defiant local officials have been voided by courts.

Montgomery County District Attorney Risa Ferman, a Republican, did not respond to messages seeking comment on her stance on the issue. Corbett's spokesman declined immediate comment.

"Today I feel like a full citizen," said Marcus Saitschenko, 52, of Philadelphia, who came to the suburban courthouse with his partner of 22 years, James Goldstein. "We're just hoping that the state will recognize it."

Montgomery County is the state's third-largest county in terms of population.

The licenses were issued a day after the county's Register of Wills, D. Bruce Hanes, said he would grant them to gay couples because he wanted to come down "on the right side of history and the law."

Hanes said he studied the state constitution and the recent Supreme Court decision that struck down parts of the Defense of Marriage Act before deciding last week to grant same-sex licenses.

"I think the constitution trumps the (state marriage) statute," Hanes said. "This to me is a fundamental civil right."

Ted Martin, the executive director of Equality Pennsylvania, said that, to the best of his knowledge, the licenses were the first same-sex marriage licenses ever issued in Pennsylvania.

Retired marketing executive Ellen Toplin, 60, and partner Charlene Kurland, 69, sought a license Wednesday after 22 years together. Both had previously been married to men, and between them have three children and one grandchild.

Kurland said there was a time "I didn't even think I could say the word lesbian."

She added: "I knew how I felt, but it was not an option. It was expected that I would marry a man, have children and have two cars in the suburbs. ... I think it's wonderful for young people today to be able to be who they are."

Two women had considered applying for a license Tuesday, but they changed course after their lawyer talked to the ACLU, which raised concerns about the strategy, given the likelihood of a separate court challenge.

Democratic Attorney General Kathleen Kane has announced that she will not defend the state's gay marriage ban, leaving Corbett and his legal team to defend the ACLU lawsuit.

Bruce Castor, a Republican county commissioner and a former prosecutor, has said he had urged Hanes not to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples. He said Kane's office could be asked by an opponent of same-sex marriage to seek a court order stopping Hanes, Corbett's office could go to court to stop it or a county judge could step in.

The Rev. Craig Andrussier, a nondenominational minister licensed to perform weddings in Pennsylvania, said he married Terrizzi and Bloodgood in a brief ceremony. They have a larger ceremony planned next week with family and friends, he said.

He called Wednesday's ceremony something "they can tell their grandchildren about."

"I feel great. I feel honored," Andrussier said.

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