PHILADELPHIA - Pennsylvania's ban on gay marriage was overturned by a federal judge Tuesday in a decision that legalizes same-sex marriage throughout the Northeast.
U.S. District Judge John E. Jones III called the plaintiffs - a widow, 11 couples and one of the couples' two teenage daughters - courageous.
"We are a better people than what these laws represent, and it is time to discard them into the ash heap of history," Jones wrote of the 1996 state ban.
Jones declined to put his ruling on hold during a potential appeal by the governor's office, which defended the ban in court. The order was therefore expected to go into immediate effect Tuesday, unless Republican Gov. Tom Corbett successfully moved for a stay while he appealed.
State marriage bans have been falling around the country since the U.S. Supreme Court last year struck down part of the federal Defense of Marriage Act. If Jones' decision stands, Pennsylvania would become the 19th state to legalize gay marriage.
One of the Pennsylvania plaintiffs, Maureen Hennessey, married her longtime companion, Mary Beth McIntyre, out of state in 2011. McIntyre died in May after battling cancer.
"Everyone is just thrilled," said Hennessey, 53, of Philadelphia, who was sipping champagne after the ruling was announced. "We were optimistic for a win, the attorneys worked so hard ... now we'll be celebrating."
Lawyers for the plaintiffs had said the law harms same-sex couples and their children by depriving them of the legal protections and tax benefits afforded to married couples.
Corbett's office was left to defend the law after Attorney General Kathleen Kane called it unconstitutional and refused to do so. The governor did not immediately announce whether he would appeal.
"The opinion's just been published. We're currently reviewing all the legal issues presented in the opinion," said Joshua Maus, a spokesman for Corbett's legal office.
Kane, the American Civil Liberties Union and other supporters cheered the ruling, which came as the state's primary elections were underway.
"Our commonwealth progressed today and so have the hopes and dreams of many who suffer from inequality," Kane said.
The Pennsylvania lawsuit, filed July 9, was the first known challenge to the state law that effectively bans same-sex marriage and the recognition of gay marriages from other states.
At least five later challenges have surfaced in state and federal courts since the lawsuit was filed, including one in which a county official is defending his decision to issue 174 marriage licenses to same-sex couples.
Oregon became the 18th state to recognize same-sex marriage on Monday, when jubilant couples began applying for marriage licenses immediately after U.S. District Judge Michael McShane issued a ruling that invalidated that state's voter-approved same-sex marriage ban.
Also Monday, a federal judge in Utah ordered state officials to recognize more than 1,000 gay marriages that took place in the state over a two-week period before the U.S. Supreme Court halted same-sex weddings with an emergency stay.