State Rep. Mark Cohen sees possibility of civil unions in Pa.

HARRISBURG, Feb. 14 – State Rep. Mark Cohen, D-Phila., today joined state Sen. Daylin Leach and other colleagues and advocates for marriage equality and civil unions during a Capitol news conference.

"I am pleased to be here with Senator Daylin Leach and others committed to the advancement of human rights for all of Pennsylvania. Senator Leach deserves great praise for his courage in bringing the issue of marriage equality to the forefront. It is however, my political judgment after 37 years in the state House and 32 years of public support for various gay rights initiatives, and scores of conversations with fellow legislators that support for civil unions far exceeds the support that is now present for marriage equality legislation," said Cohen.

"Support for civil unions today does not preclude support for marriage equality now or in the future. The issue as I see it is whether we can grant meaningful rights and recognitions in the GLBT community within a reasonable period of time," said Cohen, Democratic chairman of the House Human Services Committee.

Cohen said 41 members of the House are co-sponsoring his proposal (H.B. 708) to bring civil unions for same sex couples to the Commonwealth. The bill would define a civil union as a union between two members of the same sex and would have all the same state laws applicable to that union as marriage.

He said it is increasingly clear that the votes do not exist in the foreseeable future to either constitutionally ban gay marriage in Pennsylvania, or to permit gay marriage in Pennsylvania. Civil unions represent the middle-of-the-road compromise position between constitutionally banning and permitting gay marriages.

"I believe that there is a reasonable chance that, with a strong organizational effort, we can enact civil union legislation by the end of 2012. Doing so would require the support of the vast majority in the House and Senate, and the backing of a substantial number of Republicans in each chamber. This is possible to achieve in a legislature that does not support same-sex marriage because civil unions are not marriage. They are not a form of marriage; they are not a second-class marriage.  They are not a marriage period.

"What they are is a legal arrangement for committed gay and lesbian couples to handle relations with each other, with health care decisions, with joint property and with the outside world. Civil unions do not have the social significance of marriage, and they likely never will. They are however, an important step forward in the process of according gay and lesbian couples the respect as human beings that all people should have," Cohen said.

Nothing in Cohen's bill would require any religion or any clergyman to perform any ceremony uniting people in a civil union. The legislation would merely offer committed gay couples the same legal rights that are bestowed upon married people, without giving them the status of marriage.

Cohen said polls shows support of civil unions at about 60 percent of the Pennsylvania population: 58 percent according to the Franklin & Marshall College poll in 2009 (with support of 73 percent in southeastern Pennsylvania suburbs, 76 percent in northeastern Pennsylvania and 61 percent in Philadelphia) and 61 percent statewide according to Muhlenberg College in 2009. 

"I look forward to working with people around the state who support moving forward in this legislative session for greater human rights for committed couples in the GLBT community. Together we can make great strides forward," Cohen said.