After a Commonwealth Court judge's ruling Thursday, supporters of gay marriage in Pennsylvania should not be depressed and its opponents should not be encouraged. This preliminary skirmish did not directly engage the issues of the larger battle ahead. It merely decided that public officials, at least for the moment, need to obey the law.
The surprise would have been if the decision had gone the other way. The Pennsylvania Department of Health was seeking to stop Montgomery County Register of Wills D. Bruce Hanes from issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples in defiance of state law, which he considers unconstitutional.
But President Judge Dan Pellegrini, a former Pittsburgh city solicitor, made his ruling on technical issues including whether the court lacked jurisdiction, whether the health department had standing and whether the constitutionality of the act could be raised by Mr. Hanes in his defense.
On these narrow issues, the health department rightly prevailed. Public officials such as Mr. Hanes -- and Braddock Mayor John Fetterman, who has married gay couples -- must obey the law, at least until another court says otherwise. "In this case, a clerk of courts has not been given the discretion to decide that a law ... he or she is charged to enforce is a good idea or bad one, constitutional or not. Only courts have the power to make that decision," Judge Pellegrini wrote.
That is hard to argue against. While we are sympathetic to the cause of gay marriage, it is not the business of public officials to interpret the law but to administer it.
The larger issue will have its day in court. A separate lawsuit filed in federal court by the American Civil Liberties Union will address the constitutional question head on.