Federal judge rules same-sex marriage ban in Pennsylvania is unconstitutional

Posted at 4:34 PM, May 20, 2014
By Michael Pearson and Greg Botelho


(CNN) — A federal judge struck down Pennsylvania’s ban on same-sex marriage Tuesday, making it the latest of about a dozen states in which such bans have been declared unconstitutional in the past year.

As with many of those previous rulings, U.S. District Judge John E. Jones was unequivocal in his decision.

“When confronted with these iniquities in their own states, (these federal judges) have concluded that all couples deserve equal dignity in the realm of civil marriage,” Jones wrote.

Other courts’ decisions have been stayed, pending appeals — meaning gay and lesbian couples can’t marry in those states until an appeals court weighs in. Same-sex couples in Oregon began getting marriage licenses Monday after a similar federal court ruling, which the National Organization for Marriage said it would appeal.

Jones issued an order Tuesday permanently barring authorities in Pennsylvania from preventing same-sex couples from getting marriage licenses. That means people could apply for licenses right away, even if weddings don’t happen so fast: Pennsylvania has a waiting period of three business days between when someone applies in person for a marriage license and when they can get it.

As Jones explained, “By virtue of this ruling, same-sex couples who seek to marry in Pennsylvania may do so, and already married same-sex couples will be recognized as such in the Commonwealth.”

Jones’ ruling still can be appealed.

Gov. Tom Corbett didn’t declare his office’s intentions in the immediate aftermath of Tuesday’s ruling. But Attorney General Kathleen Kane did, saying she will “not … defend Pennsylvania’s Defense of Marriage Act because I made a legal determination as to the unconstitutionality of this law.”

“Today brings justice to Pennsylvanians who have suffered from unequal protection under the law because of their sexual orientation,” Kane said.

LGBT advocates likewise praised Tuesday ruling. Those rejoicing include 11 couples who sued in July to overturn the 1996 Pennsylvania law restricting marriage to one man and one woman. Among those is Christine Donato, who has been with her partner for 17 years.

“We are overjoyed that we will finally be able to get married in our home state in front of our family and friends,” said Donato, who has a 6-year-old son with her partner, according to a press release from the American Civil Liberties Union.

Pennsylvania officials, represented by a private attorney after Kane declined to defend the law, had argued in court filings that the U.S. Constitution doesn’t require the state to recognize same-sex marriages and that the plaintiffs can’t show that they’ve been harmed by the law.

“Try as they might, Plaintiffs cannot identify concrete state action by these Defendants that allegedly has caused them harm,” attorneys for the state wrote in court filings. “Instead, as they have done throughout these proceedings, Plaintiffs rely primarily on speculation and conjecture with regard to harm that may occur in the future.”

The ACLU, of course, differed, saying plaintiffs filed written testimony from experts detailing disadvantages faced by same-sex Pennsylvania couples in areas ranging from estate planning to taxes, health care and family law.

“These plaintiffs are as devoted to each other as any other married couples and their families deserve the protections that come with marriage,” the ACLU of Pennsylvania’s legal director Witold Walczak said in an April statement.

The lawsuit, and others like it, followed the June U.S. Supreme ruling that legally married same-sex couples are entitled to federal benefits. The decision also cleared the way for same-sex marriages to resume in California.

Since then, Rhode Island, Minnesota, Hawaii and Illinois have enacted laws allowing for same-sex marriage. New Mexico’s Supreme Court also issued a ruling allowing same-sex marriages, bringing to 17 the number of states in which same-sex partners are allowed to wed. Colorado allows civil unions.

Courts have ruled that laws banning same-sex marriage in Arkansas, Idaho, Utah, Oklahoma, Virginia, Texas and Michigan are unconstitutional, but those decisions are being appealed.

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