Continuing a rush of rulings that have struck down marriage limits across the country, a federal judge in Pennsylvania on Tuesday declared the state’s ban on same-sex marriage to be unconstitutional.
“We are a better people than what these laws represent, and it is time to discard them into the ash heap of history,” wrote Judge John E. Jones III of Federal District Court in a decision posted on Tuesday afternoon.
Judge Jones, who is based in Harrisburg, Pa., was appointed by President George W. Bush in 2002.
Judge Jones did not issue a stay, writing, “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.”
Pennsylvania is the last of the Northeast states with a ban on same-sex marriage. Gov. Tom Corbett did not immediately say whether he would ask the Federal Circuit Court in Philadelphia to delay enforcement pending an appeal, and gay rights advocates said they hoped that marriages would start as early as Tuesday afternoon.
Couples began rushing to obtain marriage licenses soon after the ruling was announced, according to media reports.
In the last several months, judges have struck down marriage limits in seven states: Utah, Oklahoma, Virginia, Texas, Arkansas, Idaho and, on Monday, Oregon. Courts in several more have said that states must recognize same-sex marriages performed outside their borders.
In most of the cases, courts have delayed implementation until appeals can be argued in federal circuit courts and, perhaps, the Supreme Court. But in Oregon, state officials said they would not appeal, and for now, Oregon becomes the 18th state, plus the District of Columbia, to authorize the marriage of gay and lesbian couples.
The lawsuit in Pennsylvania, brought by the American Civil Liberties Union on behalf of 11 couples, a widow and two teenage children of one couple, is one of more than 70 cases filed around the country since the Supreme Court struck down parts of the Defense of Marriage Act last June.
“It’s kind of overwhelming, and wonderful at the same time,” said James D. Esseks, director of the union’s gay rights programs, who is involved in 11 marriage cases at once. Mr. Esseks said he expected decisions within the next few weeks on similar challenges in Wisconsin and Florida.
After the Pennsylvania case was filed last summer, state’s attorney general, Kathleen Kane, announced that she would not defend the restrictive marriage law, which was adopted by the legislature in 2006. Mr. Corbett, a Republican, hired private lawyers to argue on behalf of state officials named in the suit.
The state put forth arguments that have repeatedly been rejected by the courts. It argued that the legislature had chosen to protect traditional heterosexual marriage and that nothing in the Constitution established a fundamental right to same-sex marriage, which is not rooted in history and tradition.
The state also argued that a 1972 decision, Baker v. Nelson, in which the Supreme Court declined to review a challenge to a state gay-marriage ban, remains the guiding legal case and that last year’s ruling in Windsor v. United States, holding that the federal government must recognize same-sex marriages performed legally in the states, was actually an endorsement of states’ rights.
But a succession of federal judges, now including Judge Jones in Pennsylvania, have instead relied on the Supreme Court’s finding last year that same-sex marriage bans were fueled by animus and inflicted stigma on gay and lesbian families.
“The plaintiff couples have shared in life’s joys,” Judge Jones wrote in Tuesday’s decision, one of several in federal courts recently that have elicited soaring prose from the judges. But the couples have also shared financial, legal and personal hardships resulting from state discrimination, he went on to say.
He quoted one plaintiff, Deb Whitewood, who told the court: “It sends the message to our children that their family is less deserving of respect and support than other families. That’s a hurtful message.”
Judge Jones, in his ruling, said: “We now join the 12 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.”