New Hope, PA Mayor Larry Keller (R) announced in a letter to the city council that he will not officiate the wedding of two men who were issued a marriage license by a county clerk who called Pennsylvania's anti-same sex marriage law "arbitrary and suspect." The New Hope Free Press reported that Keller is declining to perform same sex marriage on the grounds that he could expose the city to lawsuits, but Democratic officials say that the mayor is actually acting out of political cowardice.
"As part of the official duties of the office of the elected mayor of New Hope Borough," Keller wrote, "I am permitted by law to solemnize marriages between persons who produce a marriage license issued by any County Clerk of Orphans’ Court. This authorization is not mandatory. A Mayor is not obligated to officiate any wedding."
He continued, "Since mid-July, 2013 the Montgomery County Clerk of Orphans’ Court has been issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples. The Montgomery County Clerk of Orphans’ Court has been sued by the Pennsylvania Department of Health over these marriages…and there are other lawsuits pending in Pennsylvania on the constitutionality of same sex marriages."
"Due to these outstanding lawsuits,” the letter continued, “I must respectfully decline to officiate a marriage for these licenses issued by the Montgomery County Clerk of Orphans’ Court. While I fully respect the desire of these individuals to marry, as mayor, my first obligation is to New Hope Borough. I cannot, in good conscience, put New Hope Borough and myself at legal risk for breach of my official duties as mayor of New Hope Borough until the lawsuits are resolved.”
In Pennsylvania, the Orphans' Court handles legal matters for citizens who are believed to be unable to handle them on their own, including orphans, minors and incapacitated persons. The court also includes marriage license disputes in its purview.
In July, Pennsylvania's Democratic Attorney General Kathleen Kane announced that the state will no longer defend its 1996 law defining marriage as being between one man and one woman on the grounds that it is unconstitutional. Fellow Democrat and 2013 Montgomery County Clerk of Orphans' Court D. Bruce Hanes has issued 130 same sex marriage license since Kane made the announcement.
“Pennsylvania’s DOMA statute is arbitrary and suspect, and is very similar to the statute which was struck down (by the U.S. Supreme Court),” Hane said, referring to the Court's historic decision on the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) from eariler this summer.
The Free Press spoke to law professor John G. Culhane, a specialist in same sex marriage rights. Culhane said that while he could see where the mayor might believe he is taking a principled stand in favor of the city, but that the town's risk of exposure to lawsuits is minimal.
“Is there a risk of serious consequences?" Culhane asked. "Probably no.”
Democratic mayoral candidate in New Hope's November election Donna Deely said to the Free Press that she would be happy to officiate same sex weddings if elected mayor.
“If I am elected mayor I will officiate same-sex weddings. I think the risk there is minimal, and it’s the right thing to do, not only because it reflects the current prevailing legal winds and the country is moving in that direction, but also given New Hope’s rich tradition of acceptance. That’s why we chose to live here, and in my heart of hearts, I think it’s the fair and just thing to do.”
[image of two groom figurines for same sex wedding cake via Shutterstock.com]