Montgomery County will not deny marriage licenses to same-sex couples, the county's recorder of wills said Tuesday.
"I decided to come down on the right side of history and the law," Recorder of Wills D. Bruce Hanes said, in explaining his stand.
The decision could have statewide implications, bringing gay and lesbian Pennsylvanians to Norristown, a suburb northwest of Philadelphia, for licenses that could then be used for weddings anywhere in the state.
The legality of those licenses would remain in question, however. Under Pennsylvania law, marriage is restricted to one man and one woman. The American Civil Liberties Union is challenging the constitutionality of that law is in federal court.
Earlier this month, state Attorney General Kathleen Kane said she would not defend the law, leaving it up to Gov. Tom Corbett's office to handle the case.
Mr. Hanes, a Cheltenham Democrat elected as county register of wills in 2007, said that last week -- for the first time -- a lesbian couple had requested a marriage license from him.
After consulting with solicitors, Mr. Hanes said, he "was prepared to issue a license to the couple."
A news conference was scheduled for Tuesday afternoon at which the couple was to receive the marriage license. It was hastily canceled when the couple decided to cancel their request.
The couple's attorney, Michael J. Diamondstein, issued a statement saying that they "chose not to go forward because they were extremely concerned that the issuance of the marriage license would be challenged on procedural grounds without the courts ever addressing the actual issue of marriage equality."
Mr. Diamondstein said the couple -- two doctors in their 40s who have been together for 14 years -- requested the marriage license after hearing Ms. Kane's position on the state law.
He was unsure whether they would return to the marriage office soon, but said, "They look forward to the day when they can get married like any other American couple."
Mr. Hanes made it clear he was fully prepared to grant the license.
"Had the couple sought the license today, I would have issued it and wished them all the freedom, independence, happiness and rights that our commonwealth's constitution purports to grant to them," he said.
Citing equal-protection clauses in Article 1 of the state Constitution, Mr. Hanes said, "Those are provisions of the Pennsylvania Constitution which I think are diametrically opposed to the marriage law.
"Now, what am I to do? I took an oath," he said.
The ACLU -- which is not affiliated with Mr. Diamondstein or his clients -- said the issuance of marriage licenses would not affect its lawsuit against the Pennsylvania law, which could stretch over years of federal trials and appeals.
ACLU attorney Molly Tack-Hooper said she didn't know whether any of her plaintiffs planned to take advantage of the Montgomery County licenses. But, she said, "lesbian and gay couples who want to get married in Montgomery County should be aware that there will be uncertainty around those licenses for quite some time."
Ms. Tack-Hooper noted that similar scenarios have played out in other states. In California, nearly 4,000 couples rushed to the altar in 2004 when San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom decided to issue same-sex marriage licenses. Six months later, those marriages were invalidated when a court ruled he had overstepped his authority.
Over the next eight years, some 18,000 would-be spouses lived in legal limbo as California courts, legislators and voters wrangled over the question of same-sex marriage.
For California, the saga ended last month when the U.S. Supreme Court upheld a ruling against the same-sex marriage ban.
First Published July 23, 2013 4:00 PM