The movement for marriage equality made significant headway in Pennsylvania this week, when the Honorable John E. Jones, issued an opinion striking down the state’s ban on same-sex marriage for constitutional reasons. The federal lawsuit brought by 11 gay and lesbian couples, one widow and two teenage children of a same-sex couple was originally filed last year. The plaintiffs in Deb Whitewood, et al. v. Michael Wolf, et al. argued that provisions of Pennsylvania’s Domestic Relations Code were unconstitutional because the laws prohibited same-sex marriages and refused to recognize same-sex couples who were legally married in other jurisdictions. Adopting the rationale utilized by 12 other federal district courts, Judge Jones found that the principles of equality, deeply embedded in the U.S. Constitution demanded that all couples have equal dignity in the realm of civil marriage.
Pennsylvania’s Same-Sex Marriage Ban
In 1996, Pennsylvania amended its marriage laws, to explicitly state Pennsylvania’s “traditional and longstanding policy” of only recognizing marriages that are “between one man and one woman,” a sentiment echoed by the federal Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), which was signed into the legislature by President Bill Clinton. Moreover, the 1996 amendments also included an anti-recognition provision by which the Commonwealth refused to recognize marriages lawfully entered into by same-sex couples in other jurisdictions.
Following the Supreme Court’s decision in United States v. Windsor, which ruled that the federal same-sex marriage ban was unconstitutional, over 70 lawsuits were filed challenging various marriage laws throughout the country. The Whitewood case was filed in the Middle District of Pennsylvania on July 9, 2013. Two days after the suit was filed, Pennsylvania’s Attorney General, Kathleen Kane, announced that she would not defend the Commonwealth’s version of DOMA. A trial date was set for June 9, 2014 but at the close of discovery, both parties agreed that there was no need to move forward to trial because the Commonwealth did not contest any of the facts made by the plaintiffs and had no witnesses to present who opposed the freedom to marry.
Constitutional Arguments for Marriage Equality
The plaintiff’s in Whitewood challenged Pennsylvania’s marriage laws for constitutional reasons—arguing that the ban on same-sex marriage violated the Fourteenth Amendment. Judge Jones reiterated that marriage is a fundamental right guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution. Relying on prior Supreme Court case law that struck down Virginia’s ban on interracial marriages, Judge Jones ruled that the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment encompassed the right to marry a person of the same sex. Accordingly, Pennsylvania’s marriage law that defines marriage as being only between one man and one woman is unconstitutional. Furthermore, Judge Jones found that Pennsylvania’s refusal to recognize lawful same-sex marriages entered into in other jurisdictions unconstitutionally robbed same-sex couples of their fundamental liberty interest in the legal recognition of their marriage in the Commonwealth. Lastly, Judge Jones found that prohibiting marriages between same-sex couples also violated the Equal Protection Clause.
Impact of the Ruling
Judge Jones’ ruling effectively redefined marriage in Pennsylvania. As a result of the ruling “same-sex couples who seek to marry in Pennsylvania may do so, and already married same-sex couples will be recognized as such in the Commonwealth.” While the ruling may be appealed by the Commonwealth, for now, marriage equality has become a reality for Pennsylvania residents, as same-sex couples began obtaining marriage licenses and scheduling marriage ceremonies immediately after the ruling. Pennsylvania is the tenth state, since the Supreme Court’s historic DOMA ruling, where a federal judge has struck down a state ban on same-sex marriage.