Ten years later, Hanes still celebrated for issuing first same-sex marriage licenses in Pa.

D. Bruce Hanes crosses his arms and smiles.
D. Bruce Hanes

Same-sex marriage has long been a hot topic of debate in the U.S., especially in the years leading up to Obergefell v. Hodges, the Supreme Court case that made same-sex marriage the law of the land. In 2013, some state legislatures had enacted marriage equality laws, while others still had laws banning same-sex marriage, including Pennsylvania. D. Bruce Hanes, Montgomery County Register of Wills, started issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples in 2013 after two women came to his office requesting one. 

Before Hanes agreed to go ahead and issue the license, he consulted multiple lawyers, including Joan Nagel, first deputy in the Register of Wills office, and Montgomery County Commissioner Josh Shapiro. 

“The county would represent me in any lawsuit, so I was told,” Hanes said. 

Hanes, who has a law degree from Temple University, served as assistant attorney general for the Pennsylvania Department of Justice and practiced law privately. 

Hanes and Shapiro made a public announcement that the Montgomery County Register of Wills office would start issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples. Even though the first couple seeking a license ultimately changed their mind, many other same-sex couples came to Hanes requesting a marriage license. 

Loreen Bloodgood and Alicia Terrizzi were the first to receive a marriage license from Hanes. Bloodgood was initially apprehensive about getting the license at the time out of fear that it would be revoked, she said, but Terrizzi saw the implication of what Hanes was doing and assured her that going ahead with it would be meaningful. 

“Bruce was taking a stand and putting himself at risk for the benefit of the LGBTQ community,” Bloodgood said. “To me, he is the ultimate ally. It started the process to ultimately ensure same-sex marriage would be legal in PA. When PA eventually legalized same sex marriage in 2014, it continued the momentum of states across the U.S. giving the LGBTQ community the right to marry. All these victories, I feel, were important to winning more hearts and minds in PA and beyond.” 

Ellen Toplin and Charlene Kurland were also among the first to get a marriage license from Hanes.

“We were excited, and thrilled that Bruce and Josh Shapiro were willing to be trendsetters, and most importantly respectful and thoughtful about the inequities that were happening, and put things forward in a way that was pretty bold,” Toplin said. 

Toplin and Kurland had been together for many years leading up to their marriage, and had secured the legal documents they needed to be protected as a couple. 

“We were more concerned about the future of the United States and equity and inclusion, and people’s rights,” Toplin added.

Lori Schreiber, Montgomery County Clerk of Courts, has known Hanes through mutual servitude in county Row Offices. Hanes issued a marriage license to her and her wife in 2014, after same-sex marriage officially became legal in Pennsylvania.

“We were not in the original group but knew what was going on and applauded all of it,” Schreiber said. “Many of my friends were in that original group, so I supported them through it.” 

But Hanes’ decision to issue same-sex marriage licenses while it was still technically illegal in Pennsylvania accrued plenty of cultural and political backlash. After he signed marriage licenses for about three dozen gay couples, Pennsylvania’s Department of Health — which was overseen by Republican Gov. Tom Corbett at the time — sued Hanes and asked for a court order urging him to stop issuing the marriage licenses.

From there, both parties went to court in September 2013, where a judge granted the court order and officially barred Hanes from issuing licenses to same-sex couples. He then appealed to the state Supreme Court, arguing that the case should have been heard by that court in the first place, and that the Department of Health had no business initiating the suit. After a U.S. district judge struck down Pennsylvania’s marriage ban on May 20, 2014, Hanes’s attorney and the state of Pennsylvania resolved to make the 174 marriage licenses that Hanes initially issued legal after that date, WHYY reported. Before same-sex marriage became legal in Pennsylvania, PGN reported that several dozen of the couples that received marriage licenses in 2013 filed their own suit in state court, in which they sought clarity as to whether the state recognized their licenses. 

Hanes’ move to defy state law and the ensuing legal cases precipitated substantial media coverage and rich public discourse around marriage equality in Pennsylvania. Hanes also received letters at his office that both criticized his actions and praised them. 

“The attention that came from that made people really focus and know what [marriage] could bring to people like myself as far as hospital decisions, medical decisions, tax things – things that other couples were getting,” Schreiber added. “My wife and I were together for 17 or 18 years before we got married, so we didn’t have the rights of other people who were able to get married. Having Bruce do this groundbreaking thing, I think helped push it along.” 

Hanes’ argument for issuing the marriage licenses to begin with, he said, was that he was sworn in to uphold the Constitution. 

“There’s a couple sections of the Pennsylvania Constitution which, in my opinion, guarantee equal protection – can’t treat one group of people differently than another group based upon your view of what is immutable,” Hanes explained. 

In a 2013 interview with political commentator and MSNBC host Rachel Maddow, Hanes broke down the sections of the Pennsylvania Constitution that he and his legal team used to justify their decision. They turned to Article 1 Section 1, “a general statement on, we’re all free and equal individuals entitled to certain rights and happiness,” Hanes said in the interview. 

“Then Section 26 of the same article gets a little more narrow — it says if it’s a civil right, nobody can discriminate against that person from exercising that civil right. And then Section 28, the final section, [says] nobody can be discriminated against on the basis of sex. So right there, totally unambiguous.”

Hanes and his team also looked at the United States v. Windsor case that challenged the federal Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), as well as a decision by the Pennsylvania attorney general at the time, Kathleen Kane, not to defend DOMA in court. 

“It made me feel good,” Hanes said about providing marriage licenses to same-sex couples before it was legal. “It still makes me feel good. It’s one thing to talk about equality. It’s another thing when two women come into your office and say ‘we would like to be married.’ It’s right then at that moment, reality strikes and you have to make a decision. I feel happy that I did it because it took a cloud concept, brought it down to earth, put some faces on it, and said, ‘let’s do it.’”

To celebrate the 10th anniversary of Hanes issuing the first same-sex marriage licenses in Pennsylvania, the Montgomery County Equality Caucus (MCEC) is holding a celebration to honor Hanes on July 23 at von C Brewing Company in Norristown. Since July 24, 2013, the Montgomery County Register of Wills has issued approximately 471 marriage licenses to same-sex and nonbinary couples, out of 41,196 marriage licenses issued, according to Nagel.  

“Marriage equality is about recognizing families no matter how they’re made up and D. Bruce Hanes got that before many in PA,” MCEC vice-chair Morgan Selkirk, MCEC said in an email. “The act of standing up for us at a time when not many were, had a ripple effect that not only was felt across the commonwealth at the time but is still being felt today 10 years later and he deserves to be celebrated for his act of bravery.”

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