Commonwealth courts in Pennsylvania must give equal legal status to same-sex marriages legally entered into in other states before Pennsylvania law sanctioned gay marriage, according to an opinion by a Pennsylvania Superior Court panel. The ruling, handed down on December 28, 2016, actually addressed whether parties to a same-sex union that was performed in Vermont could seek to end the legal relationship in Pennsylvania. The court said they could.
In the matter before the court, the parties, two women who entered into a civil union in Vermont in 2002, sought to terminate the legal relationship, but ran into a hurdle when a Philadelphia County family court judge asserted that she lacked authority to dissolve the union. Senior Judge James J. Fitzgerald, writing for the panel, concluded that Pennsylvania must consider Vermont civil unions the same manner as marriages approved under Pennsylvania law. He further ruled that, if Pennsylvania marriage laws apply to the union, so do Pennsylvania divorce laws.
The parties to the divorce action, Freyda Neyman and Florence Buckley, entered into a civil union in Vermont when that state was the only one in the country that permitted same-sex unions. At the time, Vermont did not use the term “marriage” to refer to same-sex unions. The state officially applied the term “marriage” to same-sex unions in 2009.
Buckley and Neyman stayed together only five months. When they sought a legal ruling in Pennsylvania in 2014 to terminate their civil union, their request was denied by Judge Margaret Theresa Murphy, who ruled that, pursuant to Pennsylvania law, she could only grant divorces to couples who were bound “in matrimony.”
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