‘Partners’ laws take center court

Philadelphia is once again the focus of a legal controversy that takes on the notions of marriage, morality and equal rights.

Late last month, Pennsylvania’s Commonwealth Court determined that city ordinances extending the benefits of gay and lesbian municipal employees to their partners contradicts state marriage laws.

In May 1998, City Council approved and former Mayor Ed Rendell signed into law bills recognizing same-sex relationships. Commonwealth Court Judge Joseph R, Doyle ruled the local politicians overstepped their authority, noting that according to Pennsylvania law, only the state has power to define or create marital status.

The ruling could affect 120 city employees.

Original supporters of the city legislation, like Councilman-at-Large James Kenney, are speaking out against the state court decision.

"These are good employees to the city," Kenney said. "They are dedicated to the city, they work every day like everybody else and they deserve what every other employee gets."

First District Councilman Frank DiCicco also voted in favor of the legislation four years ago. He said he views this as an economic issue, not a moral one.

"When the unions negotiate in their bargaining agreement for benefits, the city doesn’t differentiate between a heterosexual and a homosexual," DiCicco said. "[If] one person happens to be heterosexual and one happens to be homosexual, why shouldn’t they be entitled to the same benefits? They are doing the same job."

The councilman said he was shocked by the court’s decision. Philadelphia has a large gay community that includes many productive citizens, DiCicco added.

"These are people, too," he said. "These are sons and daughters of parents, just like everyone else, and they contribute."

Last Tuesday, Mayor John Street announced that he directed City Solicitor Nelson A. Diaz to request an appeal and seek a stay of the opinion that would allow same-sex couples to continue to receive benefits during the process. The case would end up in the state Supreme Court, if the appeal were granted.

Street was City Council president when the legislation was introduced in 1998 and voted against it. His position has appeared to change since being elected mayor, and he even has appointed an official liaison to the gay community.

The city had three domestic-partnership laws on the books. The first only applied to municipal employees, extending health benefits to partners of gays and lesbians working for the city. Another law offered same-sex couples the same exemption to the 3-percent real-estate tax as married couples, allowing property to be transferred from one partner to another free of charge.

The Commonwealth Court overturned both of these.

Under the third ordinance, city employees could name anyone they wanted as benefactor of their pension. This remains in effect.

After Rendell signed the bills in 1998, several litigants filed suit against the city. Among them was William Devlin, executive director of the Urban Family Council, an organization promoting itself as an advocate for life, marriage and family.

The case ended up in Common Pleas Court and in October 2000, a judge upheld the ordinances. Commonwealth Court granted a subsequent appeal.

Betty Jean Wolfe, president of the Urban Family Council, last week said her group thought it had an ally in the mayor until recently, when Street has "proven to have caved in on a number of family-related issues."

She said the city’s plans for appeal were "expected, but it is disappointing," and accused the administration of trying to advance a gay agenda without consideration of its citizens.

"That is what the whole crux of it is," Wolfe said. "They changed the Philadelphia marital code to include an additional marital status."

Kenney agrees with the city’s appeal, and he called the Urban Family Council position "mean-spirited."

"They talk about supporting the family, which I think is empty rhetoric," he said. "Anyone who would want to eliminate benefits from any family just because you don’t agree with that family setup is cold-hearted and cruel."

He suggested if the city fails in its appeal, Council members would draft new legislation providing benefits to same-sex couples.