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House Bill 345 was quite popular on both sides of the aisle in the Pennsylvania House of Representatives as recently as last month. But that was before state Rep. Jerry Birmelin, R-Wayne, introduced more than 50 amendments, many of which local bar leaders and state representatives termed “anti-gay” and “hateful.” The bill was originally introduced in February 2003 in an effort to “encourage and promote the adoption of children who are physically, intellectually or emotionally disabled or difficult to place by virtue of age, sibling relationship or ethnicity.” It sailed through the House Children and Youth Committee — which Birmelin chairs — and the Appropriations Committee with nary a proposed amendment and appeared to be a slam-dunk for passage. Then Birmelin, whose district includes three counties in northeastern Pennsylvania, took out his pen. The controversial amendments could be on the legislative agenda when the General Assembly returns to session next week, though some representatives want them removed so the popular bill can pass without incident and the House can spend its time debating other issues such as medical malpractice tort reform. The first set of amendments introduces language which states that marriage should only be valid if it is between a man and a woman, which appears to have already been covered in 1996 legislation signed by Gov. Tom Ridge. That defense-of-marriage law prohibits same-sex marriage and does not recognize such marriages from other states. The second group of amendments would make it illegal “for a commonwealth party to provide by contract with an employee organization, employee, independent contractor or agent, or by any other means, any of the following” taxpayer-funded benefits to non-married individuals: life insurance, health insurance, medical leave and pension survivorship. A third set of amendments prohibits gays and lesbians from adopting children. Birmelin, who appears to be the only legislator to attach his name to the amendments, was unavailable for comment yesterday. Larry Frankel, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania, said though Birmelin’s amendments do not fit the subject of the bill, he was allowed to introduce them because both the bill and the amendments fall under the state’s domestic relations code. He said the amendments concerning prohibiting domestic partner benefits are ambiguous when defining whether it would carry over to the private sector, though clearly law firms conducting business with the state would be subject. Philadelphia Bar Association Chancellor Gabriel L.I. Bevilacqua called the proposals “divisive and serving no legal or economic benefits” and said the association membership would work the phones to try to sway legislators to vote down the proposed amendments. “It’s clear that our association feels that prohibiting law firms from conducting business with the state goes well beyond what is appropriate and just,” Bevilacqua said. “While I don’t know for sure, I would think that most firms are enlightened enough to provide benefits to same-sex couples.” Bevilacqua added that “this uniquely impacts many Philadelphia law firms which do business internationally and as a condition of doing business with larger governmental entities must offer same-sex benefits.” He called this proposal “bad for business,” charging that it “will result in discouraging economic development.” The Philadelphia Bar Association has long supported legislation that would recognize same-sex domestic partnerships and prohibit discrimination based on domestic partnership or marital status, Bevilacqua said. The chancellor added that the association’s leadership believes that prohibiting adoption by same-sex couples would deny children the chance to be part of a loving family while also increasing the burden on child welfare agencies to fill the void. Frankel said that while the proposed amendments directly affect gay and lesbian people, they would have a more far-reaching impact on the state as a whole. “I don’t mean to say that this might not emanate from anti-gay feelings,” Frankel said. “But it would be misleading to say that it will only directly affect the gay and lesbian community. We’ll lose a lot of talented people. This would really hurt the economy in Pennsylvania. I hope the Legislature can force a withdrawal of the amendments or defeat them in a vote or simply delay any kind of a vote at this time.” State Reps. Melissa Murphy Weber, R-Montgomery, and Daylin Leach, D-Montgomery, are both attorneys. Both said they do not support the amendments and believe all they will accomplish is to derail a popular pro-adoption bill and take the House’s priorities away from more pressing issues. Both vowed to work hard to defeat the amendments when the House reconvenes next week. “People who would otherwise support this beneficial legislation will now be more reticent because of these controversial amendments,” said Weber, a former assistant district attorney in Montgomery County. “I find the substance [of the amendments] troubling,” Leach said. “Some of them are almost gratuitous and hateful. It’s like he’s saying that maybe if we make life difficult for [gays and lesbians], they’ll ‘reform.’”

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