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June 30, 2014

Civil ceremonies unite same-sex couples here

NEW CASTLE — Uniting couples in matrimony is something District Judge Jerry Cartwright has done for years.

“According to national statistics, one out of two marriages ends in divorce,” the Ellwood City-based judicial official said. “I think I have a better record than that.”

Cartwright said he has presided over two to three dozen weddings a year in the eight years he has been in office and is generally “pleased to participate in these happy, solemn occasions.”

Many of the couples are people he knows. Some find the convenience of a civil ceremony preferable to a church wedding.

Recently, his civil ceremonies have taken on a new look. To date, Cartwright has officiated in three civil ceremonies uniting same-sex couples.

They are a little different, he noted.

The traditional ceremony that includes the words “Do you take this man ... ? Do you take this woman ... ?” and “I now pronounce you husband and wife” didn’t really fit the occasion, he said.

“I asked the first couple what they wanted to be called during the ceremony and at the end.

“They said they wanted to be called partners for life and that is how I presented them.”

Cartwright said he takes no position and makes no moral judgments on any of the couples he unites, be they traditional or same-sex.

“I will perform the weddings. It’s the law,” he said. “If I get a call that someone wants to be married and if they qualify, if they have the certificate and have waited the three days required, I will perform this legal duty as required under the law.”

He added he believes the couples who have gone before him are building on a stable foundation.

One of them has been together for 34 years, another for 17 years.

When the law changed, Cartwright said, he contacted Harrisburg and asked what he should do if I got a request, how the ceremony should change.

“They recommended that I ask the parties what they wished to be called.”

District Judge David Rishel said he was told the county’s four judges, five district judges and court administrator, Michael Occhibone, will get together soon to determine the county’s policy on same-sex weddings.

“I have done weddings,” Rishel said. “I want to know what the policy will be.”

Lawrence County President Judge Dominick Motto said Cartwright’s position — to accept all comers — is likely to be what he will establish as the county’s official policy.

“My opinion is, if you’re going to do weddings, you’ve got to do all weddings,” Motto said. “You can’t say yes to some but refuse others. You follow the law.”

Under the law, Motto said, all judges have the authority to officiate at weddings.

“It is not a required duty,” he pointed out. “But if a judge decides to do weddings, it’s all or none. To say a judge will officiate at weddings, but not at gay weddings is discriminatory. And it is illegal.”

As president judge, Motto said, he determines what policies the judges will follow.

He said he discussed his opinions with one of the judges who had been asked if he would officiate at a same-sex wedding. Motto said he does not know if that ceremony took place.

“We talked and he and I agreed, “ Motto said, “I believe my view on this is the law.”

Efforts to reach district judges Scott McGrath Jennifer Nicholson and Melissa Amodie were unsuccessful.

(Email: nlowry@ncnewsonline.com)

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