PHILADELPHIA – Pennsylvania’s ban on gay marriage was overturned by a federal judge Tuesday in a decision that legalized the practice throughout the Northeast and sent couples racing to pick up licenses.
U.S. District Judge John E. Jones III called the plaintiffs – a widow, 11 couples and one couple’s teenage daughters – courageous for challenging the constitutionality of the ban passed by lawmakers in 1996.
“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.
The judge declined to put his ruling on hold for a possible appeal by Republican Gov. Tom Corbett, so it went into immediate effect. The governor, who opposes gay marriage, did not issue a statement or indicate whether he would appeal. However, his state party chairman complained that an “activist” judge had usurped the power of the Legislature.
Amid a frenzy of celebration across the state, county offices in Philadelphia stayed open late to handle marriage applications, while offices in Pittsburgh were closed for election day but accepting them online. Couples must wait three days before getting married, unless a sympathetic judge grants a waiver.
Joe Parisi told his partner to “jet out of work” and get to Philadelphia City Hall.
“We didn’t want to take the chance of having this be challenged and missing out on our opportunity,” said Parisi, a Philadelphia resident who plans to marry Steven Seminelli.
They were among the first to get a license Tuesday afternoon, just hours after the judge’s ruling.
The judge also ordered Pennsylvania to recognize same-sex marriages performed elsewhere.
Vic Walczak, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania, which pursued the case, said of the ruling: “It’s everything we had hoped for.”
State marriage bans have been falling around the country since the U.S. Supreme Court last year struck down part of the federal Defense of Marriage Act. If Tuesday’s decision stands, Pennsylvania would become the 19th state to legalize gay marriage, according to the advocacy group Freedom to Marry.
The ACLU had argued that the bans deprive same-sex couples and their families of the legal protections, tax benefits and social statuses afforded to married couples.
Corbett’s office was left to defend the law after Democratic Attorney General Kathleen Kane refused to do so. A spokesman for Corbett’s office said it was reviewing the opinion.