Sen. John H. Eichelberger Jr.'s support in the past year for a constitutional amendment to define marriage as a union between one man and one woman has drawn criticism from many gay and lesbian organizations, but the area leader of one such group is hailing Eichelberger for his efforts to help the gay community.
John A. DeBartola said Wednesday that Eichelberger, R-Blair, aided him in efforts to resolve a bitter dispute with a national organization called Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG).
Despite Eichelberger's concern over gay lifestyles, the senator still stepped in to help gays in his district, and DeBartola said his own organization, known as the Keystone Alliance/Gay Newsletter, will give Eichelberger its "Spirit Award" in May.
DeBartola, 32, of Johnstown said Eichelberger sent two letters to PFLAG asking the organization to respond to complaints about the way DeBartola and the Altoona PFLAG chapter were treated by the national organization.
A message left with a representative of PFLAG's national office was not returned Wednesday.
The dispute became so divisive in 2008 that DeBartola filed a lawsuit against PFLAG. That dispute was resolved recently, and an effort is being launched to reopen the Altoona chapter.
Eichelberger sent a letter March 10 to PFLAG stating, "As they [local PLFAG supporters] are members of my Senatorial District, I believe they are entitled to a response."
"If you could please respond to either the former Altoona Chapter President, John DeBartola, or to me, I would greatly appreciate it," Eichelberger added.
Eichelberger initially had sent a letter in August 2008 when the dispute began.
Eichelberger said Wednesday he didn't know about the award, but he said his efforts to pass a marriage amendment "should not be viewed as an affront about what people do in their own homes." The Spirit Award "signifies the very best what we hope to achieve in the gay community," DeBartola said.
Eichelberger said he knows "lots of folks" who have a sexual persuasion different from his.
The marriage amendment addresses important state policy but does not affect the way he attempts to help the people of his district.
"You help a lot of people," he said when talking about the way he conducts his office.
Eichelberger also said he was not disheartened by the failure of his attempt to amend the Pennsylvania Constitution, noting future attempts will be made to bring the issue to a vote of the people.
The proposed amendment was "tabled" Tuesday by an 8-6 vote of the Senate Judiciary Committee before any debate could occur, in essence killing the measure for this year.
Eichelberger announced his intention to sponsor the amendment during a rally on the Blair County Courthouse steps last summer, and he introduced the amendment in September.
Another attempt to gain legislative support for the amendment will be made next year, either by him or another lawmaker, Eichelberger said.
Eichelberger said he was working on the proposed amendment with several groups, including the Pennsylvania Family Institute, the Catholic Coalition, the American Family Association and Focus on the Family.
The vote to table the measure was hailed by Sen. Daylin Leach, D-Montgomery, who said "to support such a bill that so clearly discriminates against an entire group of people is simply unconscionable and irresponsible."
Leach has introduced a bill in the same committee to legalize same-sex marriage in Pennsylvania, but Eichelberger said that bill is unlikely to go anywhere.
Between 60 and 70 percent of Pennsylvania voters do not favor gay marriage, and he said 31 states have passed legislation defining marriage as between a man and a woman, Eichelberger said.
Leach spokeswoman Mary Tomei agreed that Leach's bill to legalize same-sex marriage "is really not going to be moving anywhere," but, like Eichelberger, he will seek to introduce his legislation next year.