May 20, 2014 / 5:50 PM / 5 years ago

Federal judge to rule on Pennsylvania's law barring gay marriage

HARRISBURG, Pennsylvania (Reuters) - A federal judge was expected to rule on Tuesday on whether Pennsylvania can continue to bar same-sex marriage, the latest in a series of court decisions across the nation determining gay couples’ right to wed.

Pennsylvania would become the 19th U.S. state to allow gay marriage, if U.S. District Court Judge John Jones III strikes down the state’s 1996 Defense of Marriage Act.

Marriage rights have been extended to gay couples in 18 other states, most recently in Oregon on Monday, and the District of Columbia. The trend has gained momentum since the U.S. Supreme Court ruled last June that legally married same-sex couples nationwide are eligible for federal benefits.

Jones, a Republican nominated by President George W. Bush, was expected to post his ruling sometime after 2 p.m. Eastern, according to the website of the U.S. Middle District Court.

If the state law is struck down, how soon gay couples can marry will depend upon whether the ruling includes a stay pending appeal, said Vic Walczak, legal director of the Pennsylvania chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, which is involved in the case.

He said most recent court rulings allowing gay marriage have included a stay.

There is a mandatory three-day waiting period for all weddings in Pennsylvania already.

If Jones upholds the ban, an appeal will be filed quickly, Walczak said.

Pennsylvania’s Defense of Marriage Law came in response to a ruling in Hawaii that said refusal to issue marriage licenses to gay couples was discriminatory.

The legal challenge was filed last July by several gay couples.

Pennsylvania Attorney General Kathleen Kane announced two days after the lawsuit was filed that she would not defend the case, which led to impeachment efforts that are ongoing by conservative legislators.

Governor Tom Corbett appointed William Lamb, a Republican former prosecutor, to handle the appeal.

Challengers argue that, under the ban, gay couples are denied an inheritance tax exemption for surviving spouses, and survivor benefits to partners of police officers killed in the line of duty.

Jones is considered a legal moderate. In 2005, he presided over a landmark lawsuit challenging a decision by the Dover, Pennsylvania, school board to have so-called ‘intelligent design’ taught in high school biology classes.

Jones ruled that intelligent design was not science and was in fact a form of creationism.

Editing by Ellen Wulfhorst and Gunna Dickson

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