Pennsylvania Gay Marriage Law Challenge Can Go Forward

Pennsylvania must go to trial to defend its ban on same-sex marriage, a federal judge ruled, rejecting the state’s argument that the court lacks authority to hear the case.

U.S. District Judge John E. Jones in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, today denied the state’s request to dismiss the case based on a single-sentence 1972 U.S. Supreme Court order letting stand a Minnesota court ruling that upheld the state’s prohibition on gay marriage.

“The jurisprudence of equal protection and substantive due process has undergone what can only be characterized as a sea change since 1972,” Jones wrote. The Supreme Court “no longer views constitutional challenges based on sex or sexual identity classifications as unsubstantial.”

Jones’s ruling puts the lawsuit on course for a nonjury trial. He has asked lawyers in the case to be ready to discuss a date at a Nov. 22 conference.

The U.S. Supreme Court in June struck down the part of the Defense of Marriage Act limiting federal recognition of marriage to unions between one man and one woman. The court on the same day let stand the legalizing of same-sex marriage in California.

Gay marriage has since become legal in Minnesota, Rhode Island, New Jersey and Hawaii, bringing the number of states that recognize it to 15 plus the District of Columbia. The Illinois Legislature passed a pro-gay marriage law that Governor Pat Quinn said he’ll sign next week.

Legal Marriages

Pennsylvania laws define marriage as between a man and a woman and deny recognition by the state of same-sex unions legally created elsewhere. The plaintiffs in the case before Jones say the statutes violate U.S. constitutional guarantees of equal protection and due process under the law.

State Attorney General Kathleen Kane, a Democrat, declined to defend the state against the suit, filed by the American Civil Liberties Union.

Lawyers for Republican Governor Tom Corbett and other officials moved for dismissal in September.

Attorneys William Lamb and Joel Frank of the West Chester, Pennsylvania, law firm Lamb McErlane PC represent the state with Corbett’s Office of the General Counsel. Frank didn’t immediately respond to a telephone message seeking comment on the court’s decision.

Pennsylvania’s government “has an obligation to defend the laws of the commonwealth,” and to cite relevant precedent, said Joshua Maus, a spokesman for General Counsel James D. Schultz.

Exploring Options

“We’re obviously disappointed” with the ruling, Maus said. The state is exploring its options, he said.

Jay Pagni, a spokesman for Corbett, also didn’t reply to a phone message.

“We are delighted that our clients will have their day in court,” said Mark Aronchick, whose Philadelphia-based law firm Hangley, Aronchick, Segal, Pudlin & Schiller is co-counsel with the ACLU in the case. “These couples are married in every sense of the word, except one: under Pennsylvania law.”

The case is Whitewood v. Wolf, 13-cv-1861, U.S. District Court, Middle District of Pennsylvania (Harrisburg).

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