Montgomery County candidate: 'conscience' won't allow her to sign gay marriage certificates
By Margaret Gibbons, Staff writer | Posted: Thursday, October 15, 2015 4:30 am
Republican Sharon Valentine-Thomas and Democrat D. Bruce Hanes are preparing to square off in the 2015 race for register of wills in Montgomery County.
The contrast between the two Montgomery County register of wills candidates could not be more different than their positions on gay marriage.
Under the leadership of two-term incumbent Democrat D. Bruce Hanes, the county became ground zero for same-sex marriage rights. While he personally supported such rights for same-sex couples, his arguments against the state’s prior ban on same-sex marriage were based on legal issues.
In contrast, Republican challenger Sharon Valentine-Thomas is opposed to same-sex marriage.
“I am opposed to gay marriages on religious grounds, and my conscience will not allow me to sign off on marriage certificates for gay couples,” said Valentine-Thomas, an ordained minister who is serving her second term as Pottstown’s mayor. “People should not have to violate their conscience to run or to serve.”
However, Valentine-Thomas emphasized, “I am not an obstructionist and will not force my values on others.”
If elected, she said, she will seek court approval providing her with the same “accommodations” given to Kim Davis, a Kentucky county chief clerk who went to jail for five days for refusing to comply with a federal court order directing her to sign off on marriage licenses for same-sex couples.
Valentine-Thomas said she will ask a state or federal court to allow her deputies to sign off on any gay-marriage certificates.
“We will have to wait and see what happens but the precedent has already been set with Kim Davis,” said Valentine-Thomas when asked what would happen if she did not secure court approval for such an accommodation.
While not keeping her position on gay marriage a secret, Valentine-Thomas said she did not actively promote it because she did not want the campaign to “become bogged down” on one issue.
However, in what she described as an “honest answer” to a question for publication in The Intelligencer’s voters' guide, Valentine-Thomas stated, in part, “My life as a person of faith is not private. My (conscience) is clear and I am ready to serve with the same landmark accommodations afforded to Kim Davis in Kentucky. In principle she has been a forerunner to protect and leverage the capacity of all faiths to serve without violating their own (conscience) in obeying the laws that govern the land. Without unneeded fanfare I encourage the voters to think of a vote on my behalf as a preservation point for protecting the (conscience) of every citizen.”
The county register of wills office last month issued 551 marriage licenses, 19 of which involved same-sex couples, according to Hanes. The office averages about 400 marriage licenses a month, with some 20 percent to 30 percent of those licenses going to same-sex couples, he added.
Hanes, a lawyer by profession, said he did not know the specifics of the “accommodation” provided to Davis or whether similar accommodations, as described by Valentine-Thomas, were available to others or on what grounds they could or would be provided.
“What would happen if someone, citing religious values or conscience, opposed mixed race marriages,” he speculated. “I guess that is a matter for the courts to decide.”
While admittedly a longtime advocate for same-sex marriages, Hanes said his decision in July 2013 to begin issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples was based on the law, not on religious beliefs.
Hanes began issuing the same-sex licenses after explaining that his oath of office required him to uphold the state and federal Constitutions that provides equal protection for all. This decision placed him in defiance of a then-Pennsylvania state law that defined marriage as a union between a man and a woman.
The state subsequently petitioned the Commonwealth Court to shut down Hanes, claiming that he could not unilaterally decide not to uphold the law. The Commonwealth Court agreed, ordering Hanes to stop issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples. Hanes’ office had issued 174 marriage licenses, 118 of which were used, between July 23, 2013, when Hanes began issuing the licenses, until the office received and complied with the Commonwealth Court order on Sept. 12, 2013.
“This is another difference between myself and Ms. Davis,” said Hanes, a Cheltenham resident. “I complied with the court order, she did not.”
The county solicitor’s office, representing Hanes, appealed that lower court ruling to the state Supreme Court where it was pending when a federal court ruling came down on May 20, 2014, overturning Pennsylvania’s ban on same-sex marriages. Then-Gov. Tom Corbett one day later announced that the state would not appeal the federal court decision. This enabled all 67 counties in the state to beginning issuing same-sex marriage licenses.