This week, Bill Novak and Norman MacArthur will go from being father and son to a married couple.
Before you jump to conclusions, consider this: Novak and MacArthur are not father and son biologically. Rather, their relationship through adoption was solely a technicality to enable the rights they desperately wanted but were not legally able to attain as a married couple.
The same-sex couple, who have been together for more than 50 years, registered as domestic partners in New York City in 1994. After moving to Bucks County, they learned that Pennsylvania law does not recognize domestic partners and prohibits same sex marriages.
“The time came about to do estate planning,” MacArthur said. “We were told at that time ‘hell would freeze over before Pennsylvania approves same sex marriage’.”
They were advised by a lawyer that the only avenue to becoming legally related was through adoption. “It was the only legal method we could use in Pennsylvania to give underpinning to our relationship,” MacArthur said.
So in 2000, Novak adopted MacArthur. Both sets of their parents were already deceased, preventing another legal hurdle.
But still they dreamed of being married.
That dream was on the cusp of becoming a reality 15 years later, when the United States District Court declared unconstitutional Pennsylvania’s Marriage Laws prohibiting same-sex marriage.
But Novak and MacArthur, now in their 70s, faced another challenge: they were, in the eyes of Pennsylvania, father and son.
The pair’s Petition to Vacate Adoption Decree was granted on May 14, allowing them to marry. This is the first case in Pennsylvania history seeking to vacate an adoption to allow a same sex couple to marry, their lawyer Terry Clemons said.
Clemons said the approach of using adoption to gain rights was not uncommon around the turn of the century as same-sex couples were navigating estate planning and access to medical care.
Clemons, a founding partner of Doylestown-based Clemons, Richter & Reiss, P.C., successfully petitioned the Orphans Court of Bucks County on behalf of the couple. He said when the order was signed from the bench, the couple’s friends and family erupted in applause.
After years of having to hide behind a phony title in order to gain rights, Novak and MacArthur say they are overjoyed to be able to marry.
“We are ecstatic beyond belief. I feel an enormous sense of not only relief but freedom that we can finally do something in Pennsylvania that I’ve been dreaming of for years.”
And they’re wasting no time: the day after the Petition to Vacate Adoption Decree was approved, they applied for a marriage license, which MacArthur said was granted in 15 minutes.
As of Wednesday, MacArthur said the exact date the couple will make it official hasn’t been set but it will be soon. He said they’ll be married at the courthouse but will celebrate with family and friends at a reception later this summer.
The judge’s order will not only change MacArthur and Novak’s life, but will have an impact on many other same-sex couples in Pennsylvania, according to Clemons.
“Not only does it pave the way for this couple to obtain a marriage license, it is an important precedent for others who may be in the same position,” Clemons, Richter & Reiss said in a statement.