The word historic is used all too casually, but when a federal judge declared Pennsylvania’s prohibition on the marriage of same-sex couples unconstitutional, it was history made with a thunderclap.
After all, this is socially conservative Pennsylvania, where yesterday dominates today and where tomorrow’s change comes slowly, if at all. That is the reason, until Tuesday, that Pennsylvania remained the lone holdout to the marriage of gay couples among Northeastern states.
Pennsylvania’s law that restricted marriage to one man and one woman and also refused to recognize gay marriages from other states was enacted in 1996. Yet barely two decades later, U.S. District Judge John E. Jones III, an appointee of President George W. Bush, has declared both provisions unconstitutional. Gov. Tom Corbett said Wednesday that he will not appeal the ruling.
If a marker were needed to show how much America’s attitude has shifted on this issue, this opinion would serve as well as any. Nineteen states now allow marriage for same-sex couples and Judge Jones’ opinion floats confidently on that swelling tide.
Americans who were told that gay marriage would subvert traditional marriage have seen for themselves that this isn’t true. They have seen the unfairness of fellow citizens living ordinary lives refused the fundamental right to marry because they happen to be gay. In language both eloquent and practical, Judge Jones concisely sums up why Pennsylvania’s law violates the due process and equal protection clauses of the 14th Amendment.
The 11 plaintiffs, some from the Pittsburgh area, suffered various indignities. They have been forced to pay the highest rate on the state’s inheritance tax. Some of them had no legal ties to their partner’s child and had to apply to adopt. Many of them had to hire attorneys just to assert rights that traditional couples took for granted, including the right to have legal standing in issues regarding a partner’s medical crisis.
Some will resent that it was a judge, not the Legislature, who caused this momentous change. But fundamental rights are not for a majority to veto. The nation’s schools would never have been desegregated if left to lawmakers, as Judge Jones observed.
Although the U.S. Supreme Court may yet have the final word — it did not go quite so far in its mixed 2013 ruling — history is now on the side of those whose definition of freedom is inclusive of all Americans.