Several York County magisterial district judges are saying 'I don't' to weddings after a May 20 federal court order overturned the state's ban on gay marriage.
Three of 19 area elected district judges stopped performing all weddings because of the order, but they say they're avoiding politics, not gays — that their jobs forbid them from taking political stands on controversial issues.
A fourth said his religious beliefs would preclude him from marrying gays, but he said he stopped officiating weddings because he reduced his office hours.
Out of more than a dozen DJs who previously performed ceremonies, York County is down to only four because, in addition to the judges who said they want to avoid politics, another six magistrates have recently stopped performing weddings for unknown reasons. Those six either declined to comment or couldn't be reached for comment because of vacations and a judges convention.
Taking a stand: District Judge Barry Bloss Jr. said he decided during the course of litigation on the gay marriage ban that his Springettsbury Township office would no longer conduct weddings, of which he has performed about 200 over the past five years.
"We are supposed to be non-political due to the nature of our jobs and this puts us in a political position," he said. "My mind was made up that if (gay marriage) was going to be allowed, we were going to eliminate (marriages)."
He said he has no position on same-sex marriage, but the voters do. Unlike Common Pleas judges, magistrates are elected to six-year terms instead of being up for retention every 10 years.
"If I were to do a same-sex wedding, some voters would be against it," he said. "If I chose not to, it would upset those who support it. Politically, it's too much of a hot potato, truthfully. And we're supposed to avoid those."
In Windsor Township, District Judge John Fishel said he also decided to stop performing marriages a couple days before the gay marriage order was issued.
He said he understands his decision could be perceived as anti-gay, but it isn't.
"It's a political issue now and I don't want to get involved in it," he said. "We're not supposed to get political and no matter how you spin it, it is. Part of the public believes in it and part of the public doesn't and the only way to avoid the controversy is not to do it. I have absolutely no objection to the rights of same-sex partners at all, but at the same time I don't want to get involved in the decision or taking sides ..."
District Judge Scott Gross in Lewisberry, who has conducted about 500 weddings over the course of his tenure, said his decision to stop conducting ceremonies was also made to avoid politics.
"I just think this is sort of a political thing and I'm not going to do weddings," he said. "It's not a statement one way or another."
What's legal: Judges have long been an option for people who wanted to marry either in smaller ceremonies or outside of a religion; district magistrate marriages are more common than those by Common Pleas judges, as magistrate offices are spread out across numerous municipalities.
Judges are among numerous people — including mayors and clergy — authorized by state law to perform marriages, but none of them are required by state law to conduct ceremonies, said Art Heinz, a spokesman for the Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts.
"It is an option to them, they are not required," he said. "People are authorized to perform the ceremony. If they choose not to, that's their choice."
Heinz said he hasn't heard about a significant number of judges turning away couples after the decision, but his office doesn't keep statistics and hasn't sent any directives regarding gay marriage to judges.
"Nothing has changed from our standpoint," he said.
Is it political?: Heinz said judges must abide by the Judicial Code of Conduct that governs their behavior on and off the bench, including political and campaigning restrictions, but he declined to interpret whether marrying gay couples could be considered "political."
Levana Layendecker, a spokeswoman for gay rights group Equality Pennsylvania, said it's not.
"All loving couples have the freedom to marry in Pennsylvania now and it's is the law of the land," she said. "It's not a political act to obey the law. A judge's job is to enforce and interpret the law."
Barring a handful of judges across the state, "We're not seeing a mass exodus of judges who aren't performing weddings," she said.
Same-sex couples have more marriage options than ever, she said, because hundreds of clergy statewide have said they'd marry gays.
Beyond mayors and judges, just about anyone can perform a marriage, she said.
"I actually got ordained (on the Internet) and chose to marry a couple myself," she said. " I married two friends of mine ... who were together for 18 years."
But those who want to be married by a district judge in York County are down to four options: district judges Keith Albright of West Manchester Township, Joel Toluba of York City, Walter Groom of Spring Garden Township, and John Olwert of Stewartstown.
Toluba, who took office in January, said he has conducted 35 marriages since taking office in January. Two of them were same-sex.
"I don't see it as a political issue," he said. "I see it as a basic human rights issue."
Schedule change: Manchester-area District Judge Robert Eckenrode has conducted fewer than a dozen marriages since taking office in January, but he stopped in early June when he reduced his office hours to leave by noon instead of 4 p.m. on Fridays. Most weddings were held on Fridays, he said.
But while he said he didn't make the change to avoid gay weddings, he said he probably wouldn't have performed them because of "religious beliefs" that are contradictory to same-sex marriage.
Dover-area District Judge David Eshbach has also stopped performing weddings, but he declined to comment beyond relaying through a clerk that his last wedding was in the month of May.
— Reach Christina Kauffman at firstname.lastname@example.org.
York County district judges who do not perform marriages
Some York County district judges stopped performing all marriages after a May 20 ruling that overturned the state's ban on gay marriage.
It's unclear whether the marriage ruling influenced other district judges whose office staff reported they've recently stopped performing marriages. They are:
•District Judge Scott Laird in York Township, who was out of the office and could not be reached for comment,
•District Judge Dwayne Dubs of Hanover, who did not return a call for comment,
•District Judge Jeffrey Joy of the New Freedom area, who was out of the office and could not be reached for comment,
•District Judge James Miner, also of Hanover, who's at a convention and didn't return a call for comment,
•District Judge Thomas Reilly of the Spring Grove area, who also was out of the office and couldn't be reached for comment.
•Those who years ago stopped performing marriages or who never performed marriages are district judges Linda Williams, Richard E. Martin II, and Ronald J. Haskell Jr. of York City, Jeffrey Oberdorf of the Manchester area, and Richard Thomas of Dillsburg.