PHILADELPHIA (AP) — Pennsylvania’s ban on gay marriage was overturned Tuesday by a federal judge in a decision that makes same-sex marriage legal throughout the Northeast.
Pennsylvania was the last remaining state to outlaw gay marriage in the Northeast, a region that tends to be socially liberal and Democratic. An appeal to the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals is likely. If the decision stands, Pennsylvania would become the 19th state to legalize gay marriage.
State marriage bans have been falling around the U.S., including in several socially conservative states, since the Supreme Court last year struck down part of the federal Defense of Marriage Act in a landmark ruling. Oregon became the 18th state on Monday, when jubilant couples began applying for marriage licenses immediately after a federal judge issued a ruling that invalidated that state’s voter-approved same-sex marriage ban.
The issue of state marriage bans is ultimately expected to be decided by the U.S. Supreme Court.
In Pennsylvania, U.S. District Judge John Jones decision Tuesday was a victory for 11 couples, a widow and one of the couples’ two teenage daughters who filed the first challenge to the law. Gov. Tom Corbett’s office had defended the law after the state’s attorney general called it unconstitutional and refused to defend it.
“We are a better people than what these laws represent, and it is time to discard them into the ash heap of history,” Jones wrote of the 1996 state ban. Jones, a Republican, was appointed by former President George W. Bush.
County offices in Philadelphia stayed open late to handle marriage applications, while officials in Pittsburgh were closed for elections but accepting them online. Couples must wait three days before getting married, unless a sympathetic judge grants a waiver.
The plaintiffs said the ban deprives them of the legal and tax benefits enjoyed by married couples.
One of the plaintiffs, Maureen Hennessey, married her longtime companion, Mary Beth McIntyre, out of state in 2011. McIntyre died in May after battling cancer.
The Pennsylvania lawsuit, filed July 9, was the first known challenge to the state law that effectively bans same-sex marriage and the recognition of gay marriages from other states. At least five later challenges have surfaced in state and federal courts since the lawsuit was filed, including one in which a county official is defending his decision to issue 174 marriage licenses to same-sex couples.
Corbett’s lawyers argued in support of the ban last week in a separate lawsuit over “marriage recognition.” A lesbian couple in Philadelphia who married in Massachusetts in 2005 has asked the court to force Pennsylvania to legally recognize their marriage.
A Quinnipiac University poll in February showed that 57 percent of about 1,400 Pennsylvania voters surveyed approve of same-sex marriage, compared with 37 percent who are opposed.
The two most recent states to make same-sex unions legal were New Mexico and Hawaii, both of which did so in late 2013. Oregon’s ruling is not expected to be challenged.
Federal or state judges in Idaho, Oklahoma, Virginia, Michigan, Texas, Utah and Arkansas recently have found state same-sex marriage bans to be unconstitutional. Judges also have ordered Kentucky, Ohio, Tennessee and Indiana to recognize same-sex marriages from other states.
Also Monday, a federal judge in Utah ordered state officials to recognize more than 1,000 gay marriages that took place in the state over a two-week period before the U.S. Supreme Court halted same-sex weddings with an emergency stay.
And later Tuesday, a federal appeals court ruled that no same-sex marriages will be allowed or recognized in Idaho until an appeal to a ruling May 13 overturning that state’s ban is decided.
The torrent of celebration from Democrats and supporters Tuesday was met by criticism from Pennsylvania Republicans, who as recently as 2012 endorsed a platform defining marriage as between a man and a woman.
“An activist judiciary has substituted its judgment in place of the law created by the elected representatives of Pennsylvania,” chairman Rob Gleason said, “and has stifled the ongoing debate of people with differing points of view.”