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U.S. judge strikes down Pennsylvania law barring gay marriage

By David DeKok

HARRISBURG, Pennsylvania (Reuters) - A federal judge struck down Pennsylvania's ban on same-sex marriage on Tuesday in the latest court decision extending the rights of matrimony to gay and lesbian couples in the United States.

The decision came a day after another U.S. district judge declared a similar ban on gay marriage unconstitutional in Oregon, the 18th state to gain legal standing for same-sex nuptials.

"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 Commonwealth," U.S. District Judge John Jones III wrote in overturning Pennsylvania's 1996 Defense of Marriage Act.

Most recent federal court decisions lifting statewide prohibitions on gay marriage have come with a stay maintaining the status quo pending appeal, but Jones's ruling did not.

There is, however, a three-day waiting period for all weddings in Pennsylvania. The state has 30 days to decide whether to appeal Jones's ruling, according to the American Civil Liberties Union.

Later on Tuesday, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco extended its earlier stay of a judge's decision last week striking down Idaho's gay marriage ban and set an expedited schedule for an appeal by the state. Oral arguments for that appeal are planned for early September.

Still, gay rights activists have scored a string of legal victories on the marriage front in such states as Utah, Oklahoma, Virginia and Texas in a trend that has gained momentum since the Supreme Court ruled last June that legally married same-sex couples are eligible for federal benefits.

In his opinion in the Pennsylvania case, Judge Jones noted the issue of gay marriage "is a divisive one" that makes some people "deeply uncomfortable."

"However, that same-sex marriage causes discomfort in some does not make its prohibition constitutional," he wrote. "Nor can past tradition trump the bedrock constitutional guarantees of due process and equal protection."

He compared Pennsylvania's ban on same-sex marriage with school segregation laws overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court's 1954 landmark Brown vs. Board of Education decision.

The legal challenge to Pennsylvania's same-sex marriage ban was filed last July by several gay 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," ACLU executive director Reggie Shuford said.

The National Organization for Marriage, which opposes same-sex marriage, called the ruling "brazen and unjust" and said voters should decide the issue.

Pennsylvania Attorney General Kathleen Kane has previously said she would not seek to defend the ban in court, prompting calls for impeachment by conservative legislators.

On Tuesday, Kane tweeted: "Today, in Pennsylvania, the Constitution prevailed. Inequality in any form is unacceptable and it has never stood the test of time."

(Editing by Ellen Wulfhorst, G Crosse, Gunna Dickson, Eric Walsh and Ken Wills)

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