Erie same-sex couples consider Calif. marriages

Erie Times-News

By Emily Babay

For couples like Kirsten Rispin and her girlfriend, the path to marriage is filled with legal and logistical obstacles.

The Erie women might take advantage of the California Supreme Court ruling in May that made same-sex marriage legal.

Some couples in the Erie region are contemplating cross-country trips. Others question the value of doing so.

There is no residency requirement to marry in California, but marriages of same-sex couples there have no legal standing in Pennsylvania.

Rispin and her girlfriend, Rebekah — who asked to be identified only by this name due to fear of retaliation at work — said the situation gives them few options.

“It’s so frustrating to have to go to another state,” said Rispin, 23.

If Rispin and Rebekah go to California, they will be among the about 68,000 out-of-state same-sex couples expected to marry there in the next three years, according to a June report by the University of California-Los Angeles’ Williams Institute, which studies sexual-orientation law and policy.

Reasons for marriage, local couples say, include affirming their devotion, obtaining legal and financial benefits, and having others consider the relationship more valid.

No clear path

Rispin and Rebekah, both in their mid-20s, are putting their wedding on hold for about two years so they can finish school. They are also taking a wait-and-see approach to the law.

In November, Californians will vote on a ballot initiative to amend the state constitution to ban same-sex marriage, which 27 states have done. The Pennsylvania Senate tabled such an amendment in May.

Deborah Hamilton, spokeswoman for Pennsylvania for Marriage — a group that opposes same-sex unions — said her organization would push for the amendment to pass. While “people will be flocking” to marry in California, Hamilton said, her group is “trying to protect marriage the way it always has been” here.

Pennsylvania law defines marriage as between a man and woman. As in California, a court could rule that the Pennsylvania law is unconstitutional and allow same-sex marriages. A constitutional amendment prohibiting same-sex unions would prevent that from happening.
Hamilton said she believes the Pennsylvania amendment will pass. But as same-sex couples return to Pennsylvania after marrying elsewhere, the state’s law is “vulnerable” to being overturned, she said.

Rispin and Rebekah said the two-year wait also allows them to plan a ceremony with family and friends, and save money.

The ceremony, they said, gives them something to look forward to and would help others recognize their relationship.

“We would be two women who made a commitment to each other that deserves respect,” Rispin said.

Dedication and devotion

Jim Benson wants that commitment now. The Conneaut, Ohio, resident will travel to Garden Grove, Calif., to marry his partner of about 10 years later this summer.

Benson, 45, spent seven years there with his partner, Todd Sisunik, before returning to Ohio about three years ago to care for his parents. He and Sisunik want to marry before November in hopes that even if the California constitution is amended, their marriage will remain valid.

Marriage, Benson said, would let the couple “have on paper what we’ve already come to realize — we intend to be with each other and care for each other the rest of our lives.”

The title “married” is often important to couples affirming their commitment, said the Rev. Steve Aschmann of the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Erie, which performs commitment ceremonies for same-sex couples. About 20 percent of its 125-member congregation is gay or lesbian, he said.

Aschmann said nearly all of the couples who have ceremonies at the church call it a marriage.

There are nearly 30,000 same-sex couples in Pennsylvania, with about 360 residing in Erie County, according to a December 2007 Williams Institute report based data from the U.S. Census Bureau.

Not far enough

For some couples, a lack of federal rights means a California wedding isn’t worth the trip.

Erie residents Laurie Finch and Janice Hanusik established a civil union in Vermont in 2001. But they do not have the federal rights of heterosexual married couples, such as the advantage of filing joint tax returns.

Finch, 54, and Hanusik, 51, said they are unlikely to take more steps unless their marriage would be legal in Pennsylvania or on the federal level.

“We already cemented our relationship,” Finch said.

The complex legal situation does not end with marriage. If their relationship goes awry, same-sex couples can find it a challenge to legally separate.

Pennsylvania law does not recognize same-sex marriage, so a couple could not file for divorce here. But to divorce in California, one partner must have lived in the state for six months before the divorce.

One thing is clear: Even for committed couples, there is little consensus on where things stand.

Hanusik calls Finch her wife.

Finch, saying she recognizes they are not technically married, calls Hanusik her partner.

Where Same-Sex Couples Can Marry

California: Permits marriage for all couples.

Massachusetts: Permits marriage for in-state couples only. State House of Representatives is considering a bill that would allow out-of-state same-sex couples to marry; the state Senate passed the measure July 15.

New York, Massachusetts: Honor California marriages

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