Eight years after they had a Jewish wedding ceremony at Main Line Reform Temple, Lynn Zeitlin and Gabriela Assagioli last week received a marriage license at the Montgomery County register of wills office. Then, on Aug. 1, they had a small civil wedding ceremony.
In a move that has made national headlines, the county’s register of wills, D. Bruce Hanes, began on July 24 to grant licenses to gay and lesbian couples, in defiance of a 17-year-old Pennsylvania law that prevents the state from recognizing gay marriages.
By the end of last week, 26 couples had received licenses from the county. It’s not clear how many of the couples identified as Jewish. Zeitlin and Assagioli were, if not the first, one of the first Jewish couples to receive the document.
“I believe that every major civil rights issue has included some civil disobedience,” Assagioli said, referring to the decision by Hanes, which had the blessing of County Commissioners Josh Shapiro and Leslie Richards, both of whom are active members of the Jewish community. Bruce Castor, the lone Republican commissioner, has said his fellow commissioners should not have gotten involved with the issue.
The decision by the county came less than a month after the U.S. Supreme Court overturned a key component of the federal Defense of Marriage Act, or DOMA, which had mandated that federal laws abide by a definition of marriage as between a man and a women. It also followed on the heels of a federal lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union seeking to nullify Pennsylvania’s own Defense of Marriage Act — a case that advocates hope may wind up in the U.S. Supreme Court and perhaps force the court to rule that same-sex marriage is a constitutional right.
Zeitlin, 72, and Assagioli, 66, have been together 13 years. They live in Penn Valley and are longtime members of Main Line Reform.
When news first broke that the county was issuing licenses, the couple stayed away, certain that the entire process would be curtailed by the state within a day. When it wasn’t, they decided to go and obtain a license, even though they expect the issue to wind up in court anyway.
In fact, on July 30, the state filed suit to get the county to stop granting the licenses.
There were more than a dozen protesters in the register of wills office when the couple was applying for their license.
“They had every right to be there and we had every right to be there,” said Zeitlin, a lawyer who is also immediate past president of the Jewish Social Policy Action Network, a group that advocates liberal positions on domestic policy.
The couple had been looking for a judge or another official who will perform a civil marriage ceremony. Then they learned that State Sen. Daylin Leach, who is running for Congress, had married another lesbian couple from the county earlier in the week. Leach, a Jewish lawmaker, was ordained online with the Universal Life Church. The small ceremony took place at Leach's house. He has known the couple for years.
"We couldn't be happier," said Zeitlin. "We were surrounded by children and grandchildren."
“The likelihood is, somebody is going to try get these marriages, when they are done, invalidated,” said Zeitlin. “It was important to proceed as long as we have a favorable Montgomery County. I’m proud to be a resident of Montgomery County.”