Federal judge declares Pennsylvania same-sex marriage ban unconstitutional

Photo: Pennsylvania State Capitol. Credit: Ken Fager/flickr.

Photo: Pennsylvania State Capitol. Credit: Ken Fager/flickr.

Pennsylvania’s same-sex marriage ban was struck down as unconstitutional by a federal judge Tuesday. 

“Today, certain citizens of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania are not guaranteed the right to marry the person they love. Nor does Pennsylvania recognize the marriages of other couples who have wed elsewhere,” U.S. District Court Judge John Jones wrote. “Hoping to end this injustice, eleven courageous lesbian and gay couples, one widow, and two teenage children of one of the aforesaid couples have come together as plaintiffs and asked this Court to declare that all Pennsylvanians have the right to marry the person of their choice and consequently, that the Commonwealth’s laws to the contrary are unconstitutional. 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, who was appointed to the federal bench in 2002 by President George W. Bush, found Pennsylvania law defining marriage as between a man and a woman in violation of both the Due Process and Equal Protection Clauses of the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. 

“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 of due process and equal protection,” Jones continued. “We are a better people than what these laws represent, and it is time to discard them into the ash heap of history.”

The decision is the latest in a string of federal and state court wins for same-sex marriage following last June’s sweeping U.S. Supreme Court decision in U.S. v. Windsor — striking down the federal government’s definition of marriage as between a man and a woman. Since then, federal courts have ruled in favor of marriage equality in Utah, Ohio, Oklahoma, Kentucky, Idaho, Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia and, yesterday, in Oregon.

As was the case in Oregon, Jones issued no stay for his ruling, meaning it takes effect immediately.

Pennsylvania was the only Northeastern state that does not permit same-sex marriage nor civil unions for same-sex couples. Pennsylvania Attorney General Kathleen Kane, a Democrat, announced two weeks after the Windsor decision that she would not defend the state’s law prohibiting same-sex marriage. Today’s decision comes in response to a lawsuit filed in July by the American Civil Liberties Union alleging the 1996 Pennsylvania law is unconstitutional. In September, a Pennsylvania judge ordered a rogue county clerk to cease issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples, declaring the clerk’s actions as outside the scope of his legal authority.

“Today’s win in Pennsylvania finally brings the freedom to marry to the entire Northeast,” said Evan Wolfson, founder and president of Freedom to Marry, in a statement. “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.”

Pennsylvania Marriage Ban Decision

Justin Snow is Metro Weekly's political editor and White House correspondent. He can be reached at jsnow@metroweekly.com.

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