A federal judge struck down Pennsylvania's ban on same-sex marriage on Tuesday, the latest judicial victory for gays and lesbians seeking to marry whomever they want.
The ruling came a day after same-sex marriage was legalized in Oregon. Pennsylvania became the 19th state to allow same-sex marriage, joining eight others in the Northeast. More than half of the nation has legalized same-sex marriage or is waiting for a court to make a decision on some aspect of the issue.
Two federal appeals panels have heard arguments against such rulings involving states including Utah and Virginia. Those decisions are pending and could go to the U.S. Supreme Court.
In Harrisburg, Pa., U.S. District Judge John Jones III used much of the same reasoning as did his fellow jurists dealing with similar state bans across the nation. Jones ruled that Pennsylvania's ban violated the due process and equal protection clauses of the U.S. Constitution.
"We now join the twelve federal district courts across the country which, when confronted with these inequities in their own states, have concluded that all couples deserve equal dignity in the realm of civil marriage," Jones wrote.
Jones declined to issue a stay of his ruling, allowing officials to begin issuing marriage licenses. Atty. Gen. Kathleen Kane, a Democrat, has refused to defend the ban, leaving it to Gov. Tom Corbett, a Republican, to pursue the case. Corbett's office said the governor was studying the ruling before deciding his next step.
Jones ordered Pennsylvania to allow same-sex couples to marry and to recognize valid out-of-state marriages. The ruling is a victory for the 11 couples, a widow and one of the couples' two teenage daughters who filed the suit challenging the ban.
Jones called the plaintiffs courageous, but noted that the issue had split the state. A poll this month by Robert Morris University found that 49.5% of respondents favored state legislation allowing same-sex marriage and 40.7% opposed it.
"The issue we resolve today is a divisive one. Some of our citizens are made deeply uncomfortable by the notion of same-sex marriage. However, that same-sex marriage causes discomfort in some does not make its prohibition constitutional. Nor can past tradition trump the bedrock constitutional guarantees," Jones wrote.
"In the 60 years since Brown was decided, 'separate' has thankfully faded into history, and only 'equal' remains," he said, referring to the 1954 landmark Supreme Court ruling in Brown vs. Board of Education that ended "separate but equal" school segregation. "Similarly, in future generations the label same-sex marriage will be abandoned, to be replaced simply by marriage. We are a better people than what these laws represent, and it is time to discard them into the ash heap of history," the judge wrote.
Attorneys representing the plaintiffs were jubilant.
"The court, in a bell-ringing opinion, has explained in crystal-clear language why the promises of our Constitution extend to all Pennsylvanians," said Mark Aronchick of the law firm Hangley Aronchick Segal Pudlin & Schiller. Volunteer counsel from the firm, along with the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania, the national ACLU and University of Pennsylvania School of Law professor Seth Kreimer, brought the suit.
"We urge the commonwealth to take whatever steps are necessary to allow marriages to proceed and the celebrations to begin immediately. What a great day!" Aronchick said.
Evan Wolfson, president of Freedom to Marry, a group backing same-sex marriage, said in a statement: "Today's win in Pennsylvania finally brings the freedom to marry to the entire Northeast. Loving and committed couples and their families in the nation's sixth-largest state will be able to share in the joy, security and dignity that come with the freedom to marry. The stone that was once left out has become the keystone, and now it's time to finish the job nationwide."
State marriage bans have been falling since the U.S. Supreme Court last year struck down parts of the 1996 federal Defense of Marriage Act, which defined marriage as being between a man and a woman. The court ruled that heterosexual and same-sex couples must be legally recognized to the same extent by the federal government. The decision cleared the way for same-sex couples to get the same federal benefits as heterosexual couples.
The court, however, did not specifically rule on same-sex marriage or whether state marriage bans should be dropped.
On Monday, Oregon became the 18th state to recognize same-sex marriage. It's also legal in the District of Columbia.