When U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder announced over the weekend that the Justice Department would recognize all same-sex marriages whether the knots were tied in the 16 states where that matrimony is legal or the 34 where it is not, the gay-lesbian-bi-sexual-transexual (LGBT) community celebrated a victory.
But, let's not make more out of Mr. Holder's pronouncement than what it contains.
It does not instantly overrule and nullify state laws preventing same-sex marriage, such as the one that has been in effect in Pennsylvania since 1996.
The announcement simply means that the Justice Department is applying a recent Supreme Court ruling to the Justice Department only, that same-sex spouses cannot be compelled to testify against each other, should be eligible to file for bankruptcy jointly and are entitled to the same rights and privileges as federal prison inmates in opposite-sex marriages. Holder also proclaimed that same-sex couples will also qualify for a number of benefit programs operated by the Justice Department.
It may be a step forward for LGBT rights, but it is a tiny step that really doesn't change much for same-sex couples looking for legal recognition in the Keystone State.
Here, state government tenaciously clings to its current ban and is using taxpayer money to defend it.
Pennsylvania maintains that it is the state's right under the 10th Amendment to govern marriage within its borders. Those in opposition maintain that the state's ban violates the 14th Amendment's equal protection clause. That constitutional question will ultimately be decided by the courts.
However, the political tide, even in Pennsylvania, seems to be running against the ban. In five sessions of the General Assembly since 2006, bills that would amend the state constitution to ban same-sex marriage, giving even more substance to the 1996 law, have ultimately failed. And, the latest, a bill sponsored by State Rep. Daryl Mecalf, had only 27 co-sponsors, the least of any of the five. He had 36 co-sponsors in 2011, when he delayed action on the bill in committee, essentially killing it in that session.
There are two factors at play in the debate over same-sex unions, the political and the popular, and they are intrinsically linked. Say what you will about polls, but with each major poll taken on the subject over that past few years, support for same-sex marriage and same-sex civil unions has increased and solidified. One poll could be an aberration; multiple polls are not. Politicians respond to that kind of evidence.