Federal Court Finds Pennsylvania Prohibition on Same-Sex Marriage Unconstitutional

May 20, 2014

A federal judge in Pennsylvania ruled on May 20, 2014 in the case of Whitewood v. Wolf that Pennsylvania’s prohibition on same-sex marriage violates the United States Constitution. The overturned Pennsylvania law was based on anti-ceremony and anti-recognition provisions applicable to same-sex couples which were added to the Pennsylvania Domestic Relations Code by a 1996 amendment. The amendment had defined “marriage” as “[a] civil contract by which one man and one woman take each other for husband and wife.” The court’s decision is effective immediately. In rendering his decision, Judge John E. Jones III of the District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania, stated as follows:

[W]e hold that Pennsylvania’s Marriage Laws violate both the Due Process and Equal Protection Clauses of the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution. Because these laws are unconstitutional, we shall enter an order permanently enjoining their enforcement. By virtue of this ruling, same-sex couples who seek to marry in Pennsylvania may do so, and already married same-sex couples will be recognized as such in the

Pennsylvania’s attorney general had declined to enforce the 1996 amendments so the Commonwealth was represented in the proceeding before the court by a private attorney. The lawsuit was filed by five same-sex couples who are unmarried and want to marry in Pennsylvania, and six other couples, and a widow, who desire to have their valid, out-of-state marriages recognized by the Commonwealth. The ruling follows last year’s ruling of the United States Supreme Court in United States v. Windsor in which the high court held that a same-sex couple may avail itself of the benefits of the federal estate tax marital deduction and of other federal benefits of marriage. Today’s ruling increases the number of states in which same-sex couples may marry to 19.

On May 21, Pennsylvania’s Governor Corbett announced that the Commonwealth will not appeal Judge Jones’ decision, so the court’s holding is now the law in Pennsylvania.

It appears based on the ruling that same-sex, Pennsylvania-resident couples who marry within or outside of the state will now enjoy the same benefits as other married couples (in addition to federal benefits under the Windsor decision). These include the exemption from the Pennsylvania inheritance tax for assets passing at death to a spouse (previously a 15 percent rate of inheritance tax applied); the right which a surviving spouse has at death to an “elective share” of the deceased spouse’s estate, or, where there is no will the right to an intestate share, the creditor protection benefits of owning real estate and other assets as “tenants by the entireties;” the ability to file joint Pennsylvania income tax returns; visitation rights at hospitals; rights in connection with adoptions and other family matters; and numerous other benefits provided to married couples by Pennsylvania law.