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Marriage equality has come to Pennsylvania

A federal judge struck down as unconstitutional Pennsylvania laws that defined marriage as only between a man and woman.

In a sweeping and eloquent May 20, 2014, opinion, a federal trial court judge found the two Pennsylvania statutes against same-sex marriage unconstitutional as violating equal protection and due process. Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett has said that he will not appeal the decision and a commonwealth court clerk’s attempt at appeal has been denied.

Pennsylvania marriage laws

In 1996, a time when some states were proactively defining marriage as only between a man and a woman, Pennsylvania passed two statutes in this vein. The first defined marriage in its domestic relations law as a “civil contract by which one man and one woman take each other for husband and wife.”

The second commonwealth statute said that marriage between one man and one woman is the “strong and longstanding public policy” of Pennsylvania and that same-sex marriages validly entered in other states and countries would be void in Pennsylvania.

Since the time these laws took effect, same-sex marriage has become legal in several other states and U.S. Supreme Court has said that not recognizing a same-sex couple’s marriage is stigmatizing, harmful and creates a “separate status.”

Whitewood v. Wolf

In 2013, several same-sex couples – some wishing to wed in Pennsylvania and some wanting their valid out-of-state marriages recognized in Pennsylvania – a Pennsylvania widow from a Massachusetts same-sex marriage, and children of a same-sex couple, together filed a federal lawsuit against Pennsylvania commonwealth officials.

The plaintiffs sought to have the Pennsylvania laws against same-sex marriage declared unconstitutional in violation of the U.S. Constitution’s guarantees of due process of law and equal protection under the law.

U.S. District Judge John E. Jones III agreed with the plaintiffs, found both state laws unconstitutional and ordered state officials to stop enforcing them. Judge Jones wrote a long, detailed opinion that works through the legal principles at issue, invoking by comparison the reasoning of historical decisions that struck down an interracial marriage ban and a prohibition against an inmate marrying without prison approval.

The opinion emphasizes certain basic principles and findings, including:

  • The right to marry is a fundamental, liberty-based interest.
  • The right to privacy includes matters of marriage and family.
  • Historically, gay and lesbian Americans have been officially discriminated against and victims of societal harassment.
  • Denying marriage rights based on sexual orientation is “not substantially related to an important governmental interest.”

Finding the Pennsylvania laws banning same-sex marriage and same-sex marriage recognition unconstitutional, the judge ordered that they not be enforced; that same-sex couples in Pennsylvania can marry; and that those legally married outside the commonwealth will be officially recognized as married within the state.

The opinion ends with the observation that “discomfort” in some people or “tradition” still does not make denying same-sex marriage rights constitutional. Judge Jones ends with: “We are a better people than what these laws represent, and it is time to discard them into the ash heap of history.”

Legal counsel important for those in same-sex relationships

Any Pennsylvanian facing family law issues related to being gay or lesbian, including marriage, divorce, child custody or support, estate planning, prenuptial agreements, adoption, property rights and more, should speak with a skilled commonwealth family lawyer with specific experience with same-sex couples.

Keywords: marriage equality, Pennsylvania, same-sex marriage, equal protection, due process, judge, decision, opinion, man, woman, statute, legal, husband, wife, federal lawsuit, Constitution, unconstitutional, right, privacy