About a dozen people gathered at Easton’s Centre Square Monday to witness and celebrate the signing of a piece of legislation they hope will be made obsolete in their lifetime.
The ordinance, signed by Easton Mayor Sal Panto, grants benefits to city employees in same-sex relationships in line with their married co-workers. Only five cities in the state – including Allentown -- have such laws and Easton is the smallest. When the day comes that gays and lesbians are allowed to marry in Pennsylvania, the ordinance will become a relic, perhaps relegated to a museum somewhere as an example of when a little city like Easton was miles ahead of the state legislature and Congress on civil rights.
The Rev. Earl Ball, 63, of Easton, hopes he lives to see it. “I think the people are really ahead of the politicians,” Ball told me at the signing ceremony. In September, he and his partner, Tim Hare, will celebrate their 35th anniversary of being together; only about 20 percent of heterosexual marriages last that long. “And yet in Pennsylvania, we’re still considered strangers,” Ball said. He means that he and Hare receive none of the hundreds of state and federal rights that come with being married in the eyes of the law.
Ball and Hare were wed in Canada in 2003 but Pennsylvania doesn’t recognize their union. The couple considered moving back to New York, a state that recognizes gay marriages performed in places, like Canada, where they’re legal. But they love Easton’s diversity and progressiveness. Ball worked hard to get the city to pass an ordinance in 2006 outlawing discrimination in housing, employment and use of public places based on race, gender, religion, disability or sexual orientation. “Here we can really effect change,” he told me.
Asked Monday whether Easton’s same-sex benefits ordinance would be ripe for fraud, Liz Bradbury, executive director of the Pennsylvania Diversity Network, said there’s all sorts of barriers to prevent two people from pretending to be a same-sex couple so one can get benefits.
“Nobody takes these benefits unless they desperately need them,” said Bradbury of Allentown. Unlike heterosexual married couples, the same-sex partner of a city worker will have to pay federal taxes on those health benefits.
A same-sex couple has to show financial interdependence demonstrated by legal documents. They could be prosecuted for insurance fraud if they claim to be a couple and are not. A city worker could lose his or her job, she said.
Bradbury said one person asked her if a same-sex couple who were just very committed to each other but not in love could get the benefits.
“I did point out that that could also be true for straight people who were married as well,” Bradbury said.
I mentioned that anecdote to a married friend who said, “That sounds like half the marriages in America.”
A decade ago, it seemed unimaginable that an ordinance like this could be proposed in the Lehigh Valley without provoking a backlash. It’s a testament to how attitudes have changed that not one person spoke against it at either of the City Council meetings where it was discussed. Adrian Shanker, vice president of the Pennsylvania Diversity Network who works in Easton, asked Councilman Michael Fleck to introduce the bill and Fleck said he had an easy time getting the other council members on board. Fleck and Council members Ken Brown and Sandra Vulcano took part in the signing ceremony.
“This sends a strong message that the Lehigh Valley is progressive and welcoming,” said Shanker, who is a grandson of the late Albert Shanker, the longtime head of the American Federation of Teachers. The day that same-sex marriage becomes legal, city workers will have 90 days to marry their partner or lose their benefits.
Panto, a former history teacher, reminded the small crowd that the march toward fairness and equality has never been a straight or easy road. When our country was founded, only white male property owners were allowed to vote, he pointed out. It took decades and a lot of convincing for those privileged few to invite others to be part of America’s Democratic experiment.
What will it take for the Pennsylvania legislature -- another bastion of white male property owners – to grant two consenting adults such a basic civil liberty as the right to marry?