Update: Pennsylvania is 19th state to legalize gay marriage

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A federal judge on May 20 struck down Pennsylvania’s ban on same-sex marriage. U.S. District Judge John E. Jones III said the law is unconstitutional. 

He wrote, “In the 60 years since Brown was decided, ‘separate’ has thankfully faded into history, and only ‘equal’ remains. Similarly, in future generations the label same-sex marriage will be abandoned, to be replaced simply by marriage. We are a better people than what these laws represent, and it is time to discard them into the ash heap of history.”

Since last June, when the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the federal ban on gay marriage, federal judges in 10 states have overturned laws or amendments barring gay couples from marrying.

“Today a federal judge appointed by President George W. Bush became the latest to uphold the most sacred ideals of this nation and our Constitution – that justice and equality matter above all else,” said Chad Griffin of the Human Rights Campaign. “It seems that every passing day brings LGBT Americans a new victory in our unwavering march toward justice.”

Griffin also thanked attorneys at the ACLU of Pennsylvania and ACLU national, the attorneys of Hangley Aronchick Segal Pudlin & Schiller, and the plaintiffs who brought the case.

“The inescapable reality of full equality under the law is now one step closer,” Griffin said.

Jones issued his finding in Whitewood v. Wolf, which was filed on July 9, 2013 by the ACLU of Pennsylvania, the ACLU and counsel from the law firm of Hangley Aronchick Segal Pudlin & Schiller on behalf of 21 Pennsylvanians seeking the right to marry or for the commonwealth to recognize their out-of-state marriages.

"We are overjoyed that we will finally be able to get married in our home state in front of our family and friends,” said Christine Donato, who has been in a committed relationship with Sandy Ferlaine for 17 years. They have a six-year-old son, Henry.

The suit challenges a law passed by the state Legislature in 1996 that restricts marriage to the union of one man and one woman.

“The court, in a bell-ringing opinion, has explained in crystal clear language why the promises of our Constitution extend to all Pennsylvanians. We urge the commonwealth to take whatever steps are necessary to allow marriages to proceed and the celebrations to begin immediately. What a great day!” said Mark Aronchick of Hangley Aronchick Segal Pudlin & Schiller.

Last summer, Pennsylvania Attorney General Kathleen Kane announced she would not defend the state’s marriage ban.

There was no stay issued with Jones' ruling, which meant gay couples could immediately begin seeking marriage licenses. However, there is a three-day wait period for a wedding.

Republican Gov. Tom Corbett has defended the ban, but on May 21 he announced that he would not appeal the ruling. Other Republicans who withdrew defense of marriage bans include Gov. Brian Sandoval of Nevada, Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey and former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger of California.

In a statement, Corbett said, "I have thoroughly reviewed Judge Jones’ opinion in the Whitewood case. Given the high legal threshold set forth by Judge Jones in this case, the case is extremely unlikely to succeed on appeal. Therefore, after review of the opinion and on the advice of my Commonwealth legal team, I have decided not to appeal Judge Jones’ decision."

“Gov. Corbett did the right thing in not standing in the way of thousands of loving couples’ ability to make lifelong commitments to each other through marriage,” said Griffin.

Eighteen states and the District of Columbia currently allow same-sex couples to marry. Pennsylvania is now poised to become No. 19.

“This is a momentous day for our clients and all same-sex couples in Pennsylvania who want to have their love and commitment to each other recognized in the same way as that of other couples,” said Reggie Shuford, executive director of the ACLU of Pennsylvania.

More than 70 marriage equality cases are pending in the courts in 29 states, including Wisconsin, as well as in Puerto Rico.