A Pennsylvania judge on Thursday ordered a clerk in a suburban Philadelphia county to stop issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples, saying only the state legislature or a state or federal court had legal authority to overturn the state’s ban on gay marriage.
The ruling came two months after Montgomery County, Pa., Register of Wills D. Bruce Hanes startled state officials by deciding on his own to begin granting marriage licenses to gay and lesbian couples.
Hanes, who is in charge of the county’s marriage license office, said the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in June overturning a section of the federal Defense of Marriage Act on grounds that it was unconstitutional also invalidated the Pennsylvania law prohibiting same-sex marriage.
But Commonwealth Court Judge Dan Pellegrini ruled on Thursday that it was not up to Hanes to decide whether or not a state law is unconstitutional.
“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,” Pellegrini said in his ruling.
The Associated Press reported that Hanes said he was disappointed by Pellegrini’s ruling but would abide by the judge’s order to stop issuing marriage licenses.
Earlier this year the ACLU filed a lawsuit on behalf of same-sex couples challenging the constitutionality of Pennsylvania’s ban on same-sex marriage. To the delight of LGBT activists, Pennsylvania Attorney General Kathleen Kane announced she would not defend the law.
Hanes cited Kane’s position that the state law was unconstitutional based on the Supreme Court’s DOMA ruling as justification for his decision to issue marriage licenses to gay and lesbian couples in Montgomery County, which touches on the northwest border of Philadelphia.
According to the Philadelphia Inquirer, Hanes began issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples on July 24 with the full backing of the county’s Democratic commissioners. As of earlier this week, 174 same-sex marriage licenses had been issued and 118 of the couples that obtained their license had completed their weddings, the Inquirer reported.
Pelligrini issued his ruling ordering Hanes to stop issuing the licenses after the administration of Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett (R) filed suit against Hanes in Commonwealth Court on grounds that the state was obligated to enforces all of its laws.
It could not immediately be determined whether the marriages of the same-sex couples through licenses issued by Hanes would remain valid.
Vic Walczak, an attorney with the ACLU of Pennsylvania representing gay couples challenging the state’s gay marriage ban, told AP Pellegrini’s decision would have no impact on the ACLU case.
“It is full speed ahead for the ACLU lawsuit,” AP quoted him as saying.
Similar to the action by Hanes, several counties in New Mexico have begun issuing same-sex marriage licenses. New Mexico’s Supreme Court is deliberating over a challenge by state officials to the issuance of the licenses and a ruling on the issue was expected later this year.