HARRISBURG House Republican pushes ban on benefits for same-sex couples

The conservative Republican also wants to ban common-law marriages.
HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) -- Democratic leaders in the state House of Representatives are fighting a Republican lawmaker's push for a ban on same-sex benefits for state employees, as well as a host of other measures that would impose limits on gay couples.
The minority leaders are urging leaders of the Republican majority to withdraw amendments that Rep. Jerry Birmelin wants to attach to a bill to create a program to find adoptive homes for disabled children.
Birmelin, R-Wayne, has filed approximately 50 amendments concerning policies that would affect same-sex couples and unmarried heterosexual couples who live together. Some are variations of legislation that would prohibit so-called "domestic partner" benefits for state workers, regardless of sexual orientation.
Birmelin said Wednesday his amendments were prompted by the national debate over homosexual marriages and recent decisions to allow benefits for gay couples in Pennsylvania.
University professors
Pennsylvania's 5,500 unionized state university professors would be granted family leave and sick leave for domestic partners, regardless of sexual orientation, under a tentative contract agreement that must be ratified by the faculty union and the governing board of the State System of Higher Education. Other state workers won similar benefits in contracts negotiated last year.
The professors' agreement also leaves open the possibility of health-care benefits for same-sex couples, but only if the state's Employee Benefits Trust Fund authorizes them for other state workers. Fund officials have said there are no immediate plans to do so.
Birmelin said he wants to bolster a 1996 state law that defines marriage as a pact between a man and a woman by prohibiting gay couples from obtaining marriage licenses. He also seeks to ban common-law marriages between heterosexual or homosexual couples.
"We do have a fairly good definition [of marriage], but I felt with what we've seen happen in San Francisco and Massachusetts and New Mexico, we think there should be a strengthened definition," he said.
Complaint about legislation
Mike Manzo, chief of staff to Minority Leader H. William DeWeese, D-Greene, said Birmelin should have introduced his proposals in a free-standing bill, instead of complicating a separate piece of legislation that has wide bipartisan support.
"I don't think anyone in our caucus is surprised that Rep. Birmelin and the rest of the conservatives in the House Republicans would try to make this an issue. It was just shocking that he would use this vehicle to make his political statement to the world," Manzo said.
The bill's sponsor, Rep. John Yudichak, said he only recently became aware of Birmelin's intent to amend his bill on the House floor.
"There's no question the controversy will seriously jeopardize the opportunity we have to address the real intent of the bill," said Yudichak, D-Luzerne.
Steve Miskin, spokesman for House Majority Leader Sam Smith, R-Jefferson, said he expects Yudichak's bill and Birmelin's amendments will come up for a vote sometime after the House reconvenes March 15.
"If the Democrats are trying to say it's a partisan issue, it's wrong," Miskin said. "It's a very personal issue, and many [members] consider it a moral and ethical issue. Any member has the right to put forward any bill or amendment. We don't dictate what they do or don't do."
Although Rendell opposes gay marriage, he supports same-sex benefits for state workers and extended benefits to municipal employees in Philadelphia when he was the city's mayor. His spokeswoman, Kate Philips, said he would veto any legislation seeking to ban such benefits.
"The governor believes that civil unions and same-sex partner benefits should be afforded to any couple in a long-term committed relationship," she said.