In his nearly 40 years as a litigator, including a stint in the 1980s as Philadelphia’s city solicitor, Mark Aronchick has handled his share of big cases.
But according to the 64-year-old who lives in Penn Valley, none has loomed as large as the federal lawsuit he filed this week challenging Pennsylvania’s Defense of Marriage Act.
That 17-year-old statute prohibits state recognition of same-sex weddings and also prohibits state government from recognizing gay marriages performed elsewhere.
“It is, by any measure, as important as any other civil rights case pending anywhere,” said Aronchick, one of the lead attorneys on Whitewood v. Corbett, a federal lawsuit filed July 9 in Harrisburg.
“We are going to show everyone that there is nothing to fear about the freedom to marry, and there is everything to celebrate,” said the longtime member of Temple Beth Hillel-Beth El in Wynnewood who has long been involved in Jewish causes and is a major player in Democratic Party politics.
Pennsylvania is the only state in the Northeast, from Maine to Maryland, that permits neither same-sex marriage nor civil unions. It’s one of 37 states nationally that outlaw gay marriage.
The suit came 13 days after the U.S. Supreme Court essentially struck down the federal Defense of Marriage Act, which means that the U.S. government can no longer deny marriage benefits to same-sex couples who marry in states that permit gay marriage. But the case did not settle the question of what happens in the vast majority of states where gay marriage is not recognized.
Aronchick is leading a team of lawyers from his firm, Hangley Aronchick Segal Pudlin & Schiller. The firm joined the American Civil Liberties Union in bringing the suit on behalf of more than 20 Pennsylvania men and women who hope to marry but can’t under current state law.
At least one of the plaintiffs is Jewish. Helena Miller, a Philadelphia educator and her partner, Dara Raspberry, were legally married in Connecticut. But their marital status essentially became null and void once they moved to Philadelphia a few years ago. Miller recently gave birth to a girl, Zivah, but currently she is considered her only legal parent.
“For me, I feel a lot of Judaism is about social justice and treating others with honor and respect,” said Miller, 39, who grew up in Delaware County and lives in West Philadelphia. “This is a Jewish issue because it is about our family.”
Miller said she and Raspberry are joining Kol Tzedek, a Reconstructionist synagogue in West Philadelphia, where they plan to have a baby naming ceremony.
Another Jewish protagonist in the case is Seth Kreimer, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania School of Law who specializes in constitutional law. He assisted in writing the complaint for the case and shaping the overall strategy. He’s married to Rabbi Nancy Fuchs Kreimer, a writer and professor at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in Wyncote.
“The fact is the Reconstructionist Movement, like the Reform and Conservative movements, all recognize the importance of marriage,” said Kreimer, a 60-year-old Mount Airy resident. “Their rabbis — indeed my wife — perform marriages for same-sex couples. To deny official recognition to unions that are as heartfelt and are as important” as heterosexual marriages “is an imposition of inequality on people who love each other and want to commit to one another.”
Changing the Pennsylvania law, he said, is high on the gay-marriage agenda because this is a state “where the elected officials haven’t really caught up to public opinion and there was a sense that they needed some help with that.
“It is after all,” he added, “the birthplace of the Constitution.”
The legal team’s work on the lawsuit began long before the U.S. Supreme Court ruled June 26 in United States v. Windsor, which involved the Jewish plaintiff, Edith Windsor. Attorneys had been working for months gathering information about the Pennsylvania plaintiffs and compiling their arguments, in the hopes that the high court would strike down DOMA and leave room for further legal action.
Aronchick, who earlier had drafted ordinances now in effect in Philadelphia and Lower Merion that protect gay and lesbian workers from discrimination, said that beyond changing the status quo in Pennsylvania, the team of lawyers hopes that this case may one day make it to the U.S. Supreme Court. The ultimate goal, he said, is for marriage to be a right for all Americans in every state.
But he cautioned that it will be a long haul and it will take at least a year before the case goes to trial. Then, if there’s an appeal, it will be at least another year before that transpires.
“We are going to take it step by step,” he said.
Each of the plaintiffs, he said, is simply asking for the right to stand up in front of his or her “friends and family and publicly commit to each other in good health and bad.”