Pennsylvania county fights state demand to stop giving gays marriage licenses

NORRISTOWN, Pennsylvania Fri Aug 2, 2013 4:03pm EDT

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NORRISTOWN, Pennsylvania (Reuters) - A suburban Philadelphia county that is giving marriage licenses to gay couples despite a Pennsylvania ban on same-sex nuptials went to court on Friday to fight a state lawsuit aimed at halting the practice.

Montgomery County Solicitor Ray McGarry filed documents in Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court seeking to dismiss the lawsuit filed by the state Health Department, arguing the department lacks the jurisdiction to sue.

Speaking to reporters at a press conference, he also argued that marriage is a "constitutional, fundamental civil right" for all Americans.

The Montgomery County Register of Wills, D. Bruce Hanes, an elected official who issues marriage licenses, has been processing the licenses for couples of the same gender for the past week and issued 49 of them as of late Thursday.

The state Health Department, part of the administration of Governor Tom Corbett, a Republican, on Tuesday filed a lawsuit seeking to stop Hanes.

The lawsuit comes less than two weeks after Pennsylvania Attorney General Kathleen Kane, a Democrat, announced she would not defend the state's ban on same sex marriage.

McGarry, in his filing, argues that only the county's district attorney, the attorney general or a private citizen has the right to challenge Hanes in court.

The county's district attorney, Risa Ferman, did not immediately return a call for comment, but was expected to issue a statement later in the day. The Attorney General's Office declined to comment.

Pennsylvania's Defense of Marriage Act was amended in 1996 to ban same-sex nuptials and to void same-sex marriages of state residents that might have been recognized in another state.

Thirteen U.S. states and the District of Columbia recognize gay marriage. Among them, Delaware, Minnesota and Rhode Island legalized gay marriage this year. Pennsylvania is among six potential states targeted by gay marriage advocates for a future push to legalize same sex nuptials in 2015 and 2016, according to the Freedom to Marry advocacy group.

Montgomery County, with a population of more than 800,000, borders Philadelphia.

(Editing by Carol Bishopric)

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