A federal judge has overturned Pennsylvania's ban on same-sex marriage.
U.S. District Judge John E. Jones III said in his ruling Tuesday that same-sex couples who seek to marry may do so, and he also ordered the state to recognize same-sex marriages performed elsewhere.
Jones ruled that Pennsylvania's marriage laws violate both the due process and equal protection clauses of the 14 Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.
"The issue we resolve today is a divisive one," Jones wrote in his opinion. "Some of our citizens are made deeply uncomfortable by the notion of same-sex marriage. However, that same-sex marriage causes discomfort in some does not make its prohibition constitutional. Nor can past tradition trump the bedrock constitutional guarantees of due process and equal protection."
"In future generations the label same-sex marriage will be abandoned, to be replaced simply by marriage," he wrote. "We are a better people than what these laws represent, and it is time to discard them into the ash heap of history."
Jones called the plaintiffs - a widow, 11 couples and one couple's teenage daughters - "courageous" for challenging the constitutionality of the ban passed by lawmakers in 1996.
He declined to put his ruling on hold for a possible appeal by Governor Tom Corbett, so it went into immediate effect. Corbett has 30 days to decide whether to appeal.
The governor, who opposes gay marriage, did not issue a statement or indicate whether he would appeal. A spokesman said the governor is in the process of thoroughly reviewing the decision, and that a statement would likely be issued Wednesday.
The Republican Party and the Catholic Conference are among the critics of the judge's decision.
“An activist judiciary has substituted its judgment in place of the law created by the elected representatives of Pennsylvania and has stifled the ongoing debate of people with differing points of view,” Republican Party of Pennsylvania Chairman Rob Gleason said in a statement. "This complete disregard of the important roles held by each branch of government is just another reason why we need to elect principled people to office to uphold our Constitution."
"We believe all Pennsylvanians deserve dignity and respect regardless of their beliefs on this issue. However, the citizens of the Commonwealth also deserved to be participants in the ongoing discussion rather than be dictated to by judicial fiat,” Gleason said.
In a statement, the Pennsylvania Catholic Conference said the "redefinition of marriage enshrines in law a denial of the rights of children to a mother and a father united in marriage."
"The Catholic Church teaches that all people are made in the image of God and that everyone has inherent dignity," the statement reads. "No one should face unjust discrimination. But human experience, considerable social data, as well as our religious convictions, lead us to see clearly that children thrive best in a stable family grounded on the marital union of one man and one woman. Catholic opposition to same-sex marriage is not a statement about the worth of human beings who experience same-sex attraction, but a statement about the nature of marriage itself."
The American Civil Liberties Union had argued that Pennsylvania's bans deprive same-sex couples and their families of the legal protections, tax benefits and social statuses afforded to married couples.
“This is a momentous day for our clients and all same-sex couples in Pennsylvania who want to have their love and commitment to each other recognized in the same way as that of other couples,” said Reggie Shuford, executive director of the ACLU of Pennsylvania.