Federal judge overturns Pennsylvania same-sex marriage ban

A federal judge struck down Pennsylvania’s ban on same-sex marriage Tuesday, handing gay rights advocates their second legal victory in as many days and striking the last remaining ban in the Northeast.

The state’s laws, which ban same-sex marriages, were struck down as unconstitutional by U.S. District Court Judge John Jones III, who ruled in favor of the 23 plaintiffs whose lawsuit was filed by the American Civil Liberties Union and others.

“We are a better people than what these laws represent,” Jones wrote of same-sex marriage bans in his ruling, drawing comparisons between the civil rights movement and the modern gay marriage movement. “It is time to discard them into the ash heap of history.”

Judge Jones was appointed in 2002 by President George W. Bush, according to his court biography. He also reportedly came recommended by then-Sen. Rick Santorum, a politician noted for his strong opposition to homosexuality. Jones’s decision came a day after another federal judge reached the same conclusion about a voter-passed ban on same-sex marriage in Oregon.

Same-sex couples in Pennsylvania began receiving marriage licenses soon after Jones’s decision came down. Among the first was Kerry Smith and her partner Rue Landau, the Executive Director of the Philadelphia Commission on Human Relations.

“We were the first couple to get the marriage license in Philadelphia,” Landau said before heading to a celebratory rally. Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter told the couple he would officiate their wedding, which could take place as soon as next week, Landau said. “This is all happening so fast,” she added.

In honor of the decision, Nutter raised the rainbow-colored flag that has come to symbolize the gay rights movement. The city also announced extended hours for the office that distributes marriage licenses. “It is a totally joyous day for Pennsylvania’s lesbian, gay, bi-sexual and transgender communities, advocates and allies,” Nutter said in a statement.

The ruling was the latest in a string of legal victories for the movement since last summer, when the Supreme Court granted full federal recognition to married same-sex couples. Since that June decision, federal judges struck same-sex marriage bans in 9 states: Idaho, Illinois, Michigan, Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Texas, Utah and Virginia.  Federal judges ruled that out-of-state marriages should be recognized in another four states: Indiana, Ohio, Kentucky and Tennessee. (A county judge in Arkansas also recently ruled against that state’s ban as well.) 

While Pennsylvania Attorney General Kathleen Kane (D) had refused to defend the law, attorneys for the Office of General Counsel, which reports to Gov. Tom Corbett (R), stood in for the state. And, as with many of the cases, the fight may not be over yet. A spokeswoman for the governor said he and his counsel were reviewing the ruling to decide how or whether to proceed. Pennsylvania’s version of the ban passed in 1996.

In most of the cases, the decisions flow explicitly from the Supreme Court’s decision last June that the Defense of Marriage Act violated the Constitution’s due process and equal protection clauses. As a result, legally married same-sex couples were entitled to equal treatment under federal law, the court found. In his dissenting opinion, Justice Antonin Scalia rightly predicted that the case armed proponents of same-sex marriage with ammunition against state bans.

“[T]he view that this Court will take of state prohibition of same-sex marriage is indicated beyond mistaking by today’s opinion,” he wrote. “… How easy it is, indeed how inevitable, to reach the same conclusion with regard to state laws denying same-sex couples marital status,” he added.

He would be proven right over the coming months: state bans were overturned or weakened in 13 federal court rulings since the high court’s decision.

Read more:

Timeline: The 13 federal rulings against gay marriage bans since June

Niraj Chokshi reports for GovBeat, The Post's state and local policy blog.
Reid Wilson covers state politics and policy for the Washington Post's GovBeat blog. He's a former editor in chief of The Hotline, the premier tip sheet on campaigns and elections, and he's a complete political junkie.
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