HARRISBURG -- A county official in suburban Philadelphia who issued more than 100 marriage licenses to same-sex couples, drawing nationwide attention and adulation from advocates of gay marriage, has been ordered by a judge to stop issuing such licenses.
The case against Montgomery County Register of Wills D. Bruce Hanes was brought by the Pennsylvania Department of Health, and the Commonwealth Court judge granted the department's petition seeking to compel Mr. Hanes to stop issuing the licenses in defiance of state law.
"Unless and until either the General Assembly repeals or suspends the Marriage Law provisions, or a court of competent jurisdiction orders that the law is not to be obeyed or enforced, the Marriage Law in its entirety is to be obeyed and enforced by all Commonwealth public officials," wrote President Judge Dan Pellegrini in a 34-page ruling handed down Thursday.
Mr. Hanes said he will comply with the court's order though he said he will be meeting soon with attorneys to discuss the possibility of an appeal.
"Several weeks ago when I made the decision to begin issuing marriage licenses to same sex couples, I said I believed I was coming down on the right side of history. After having issued 174 marriage licenses since then and having talked with many of those couples, I am more convinced today that I am on the right side of history," he said in a written statement.
The case did not address the constitutionality of the state's 1996 law against same-sex marriage itself, but rather more narrow legal questions, such as whether Mr. Hanes was a judicial official under state law.
"Until a court has decided that an act is unconstitutional, Hanes must enforce the law as written, and it is not a defense to a mandamus action the law may be unconstitutional," Judge Pellegrini wrote.
An attorney for the administration of Gov. Tom Corbett said the case was simply about elected officials following the law.
"The key question in this case has been whether any local official, anywhere in Pennsylvania, has the ability to decide which laws to uphold and which laws to reject based on their own personal legal opinion," General Counsel James Schultz said in a statement.
Randall Wenger, chief counsel for the Pennsylvania Family Institute, said his group was pleased by the court's ruling and was concerned by the "lawlessness" shown by public officials in the case.
A statement from The National Organization for Marriage said the case could have national implications as similar questions about the role of local officials has arisen in New Mexico and other states. That group also urged Mr. Corbett to go a step further and explicitly declare marriage licenses that were issued as invalid.
The constitutionality of Pennsylvania's law forbidding same-sex marriage is being challenged in a separate case in federal court, filed in July by the American Civil Liberties Union.
Thursday's Commonwealth Court ruling has no impact on the federal case, said Witold Walczak, legal director of the Pennsylvania ACLU.
"It's full speed ahead," he said.
Some of the couples who were issued marriage licenses by Mr. Hanes, and who were subsequently married, might try to join the ACLU's case, or they could file another action in Commonwealth Court, said Robert Heim, an attorney representing 32 of the couples.
Judge Pellegrini's ruling Thursday leaves those couples in the same situation they were previously, Mr. Heim said, adding that they believe they have legally valid marriages.
"The judge specifically stated that the legality of the licenses that were issued was not being ruled upon," he said.
Braddock Mayor John Fetterman said he was disappointed -- though unsurprised -- by Thursday's ruling. He'd performed the first same-sex marriage in Allegheny County on Aug. 5, when he married John Kandray and Bill Gray, and had been officiating same-sex weddings since.
Unless someone is willing to issue licenses in Pennsylvania though, he says he's unsure how he could continue officiating such weddings.
In the meantime, he said he would be more than happy to honor outstanding licenses that Mr. Hanes had issued before the ruling.
While the judge's decision was disheartening, it was not entirely unexpected, said Gary Van Horn, president of The Delta Foundation of Pittsburgh, an LGBT advocacy group.
"At the end of the day, people's hearts and minds continue to change," he said. "Marriage equality will be legal here in Pennsylvania ... it's moving very quickly."
Lexi Belculfine contributed. Kate Giammarise: firstname.lastname@example.org, 1-717-787-4254 or on Twitter @KateGiammarise. First Published September 12, 2013 4:15 AM