In a stunning development, the State of Pennsylvania has announced it will not appeal the May 20 federal district court decision striking down its ban on marriage by same-sex couples.
Just one day after the ruling, Governor Tom Corbett, a Republican widely considered a social conservative, announced he would abide by the ruling from US District Judge John E. Jones III in a case brought by the American Civil Liberties Union on behalf of 11 same-sex couples, a widow from an out-of-state same-sex marriage, and two teenage children of one of the plaintiff couples.
In a statement released by the governor’s office, Corbett said, “As a Roman Catholic, the traditional teaching of my faith has not wavered. I continue to maintain the belief that marriage is between one man and one woman.”
However, he also said his duties as governor require that he assess the prospect for prevailing in an appeal and he concluded that such an effort was “extremely unlikely to succeed.”
Just last October, Corbett compared same-sex marriage to marriage between siblings. Asked by a Harrisburg television station to comment on a statement by attorneys for Pennsylvania in a court filing likening marriage by two members of the same sex to marriage between children, the governor responded, “It was an inappropriate analogy, you know. I think a much better analogy would have been brother and sister, don’t you?”
Corbett faces a tough reelection fight this November against Democrat Tom Wolf, a wealthy businessman who spent an estimated $10 million of his own money in winning his party's primary this week. In a March poll conducted by Quinnipiac University, marriage equality held a 57-37 edge in Pennsylvania.
With Corbett’s decision, Pennsylvania becomes the 19th state to allow gay marriage. Earlier this week, a US district judge in Oregon struck down that state’s statutory and constitutional bar on marriage equality, a ruling officials there pledged in advance not to appeal. Marriage by same-sex couples is also legal in Washington, DC.
Forty-four percent of the US population now lives in marriage equality jurisdictions.
Since the US Supreme Court struck down DOMA's prohibition on federal recognition of legal same-sex marriages last June, federal district courts have thrown out bans on same-sex marriage or recognition of same-sex marriage from other jurisdictions in Virginia, Michigan, Ohio, Kentucky, Tennessee, Texas, Oklahoma, Utah, and Idaho. (Two weeks ago, a state court in Arkansas struck down that state’s constitutional ban on same-sex marriage on the basis of both state and federal constitutional claims, a ruling that has been appealed to the Arkansas Supreme Court.) Except for Oregon and Pennsylvania, all of the federal district court rulings are being appealed, and arguments have already been held in the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals in two consolidated cases in Virginia and in the 10th Circuit regarding the Utah and Oklahoma cases.
A ruling from either of those circuits or from circuits that have not yet heard arguments in pending marriage equality cases could come at any time. A ruling from a circuit court of appeals this spring or summer would likely be taken up by the Supreme Court in the term that begins in October, which could mean a definitive ruling on whether same-sex couples have a claim to marriage rights under the US Constitution by June 2015.
“This is a milestone for our movement,” James Esseks, the director of the ACLU Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Project, said in a written statement. “It reinforces the reality that this isn’t a partisan issue. It’s about fundamental fairness and dignity for all people, including lesbians and gay men.”
In a joint statement, Witold Walczak, legal director of the ACLU of Pennsylvania, and Mark Aronchick, an attorney from the firm Hangley Aronchick Segal Pudlin & Schiller who participated in the successful litigation, said, “As the judge noted, we are a better people than the marriage ban and the governor’s historic decision not to appeal will be an enduring legacy.”
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