Federal Court Strikes Down Pennsylvania’s Prohibition of Same-Sex Marriage
On May 20, 2014, the Federal District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania announced that Pennsylvania’s prohibition of same-sex marriage is unconstitutional. With this case, Whitewood v. Wolf, the Court held that Pennsylvania must allow same-sex couples to get married and must recognize the marriages of same-sex couples validly performed in other jurisdictions as valid under the laws of the Commonwealth.
With this decision and the announcement that the Defendants will not seek an appeal, Pennsylvania now becomes the nineteenth state to recognize and allow same-sex marriage (the District of Columbia also recognizes same-sex marriage). Pennsylvania also follows the trend established in seven additional states where judges have struck down legislative marriage bans.
The issue in Whitewood concerned the constitutionality of Section 1102 and Section 1704 of the Pennsylvania Domestic Relations Code. Section 1102 of the Domestic Relations Code defined marriage as between one man and one woman, while Section 1704 specifically stated that same-sex marriages validly entered into in other jurisdictions were considered invalid in Pennsylvania. The Plaintiffs sought Pennsylvania recognition of same-sex marriages entered into in other jurisdictions and sought to prohibit the Pennsylvania government from preventing same-sex couples from entering into marriage.
The Court found that Sections 1102 and 1704 violated both the Due Process Clause and the Equal Protection Clause of the United States Constitution. The Due Process Clause of the 14th Amendment guarantees that all citizens have fundamental rights that the government cannot restrict, and the courts have long held that marriage is a fundamental right. While the Defendants argued that the fundamental right to marry does not include the right to marry a person of the same-sex, the Court rejected this argument. The Court noted that the right to marry is a right held by the individual, and that the individual is free to choose whom to marry. Similarly, the Court found that the failure to recognize a marriage that was valid when performed in another jurisdiction robs the individual of this fundamental right. Based on this reasoning, the Court found that both Sections 1102 and 1704 are unconstitutional violations of the Due Process Clause.
The Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment guarantees that all persons within a jurisdiction will be treated equally under the law. If the government enacts a law that denies equal protection to a class, the law must pass a specific scrutiny standard for the class involved. There are three classes of scrutiny: strict, intermediate, and rational basis. Intermediate scrutiny, the middle level, is applied to “quasi-suspect” classifications such as sex and illegitimacy. To pass intermediate scrutiny, the statutory classification must be substantially related to an important government purpose. A law will survive rational basis review, which encompasses all classes that are not based on race, alienage, national origin, sex, and illegitimacy, if the classification is rationally related to a legitimate government purpose.
The Whitewood Court applied intermediate scrutiny to Sections 1102 and 1704, and rejected the Defendants’ argument that the laws need only pass rational basis review. In making this decision, the Court found that a classification based on sexual orientation satisfies the four-part test to be considered “quasi-suspect,” which is: (1) there is a history or purposeful unequal treatment of gays and lesbians; (2) sexual orientation bears no relationship to the ability to contribute to society; (3) sexual orientation is a “obvious, immutable, or distinguishing” characteristic; and (4) gays and lesbians do not possess sufficient political power to effectuate change through legislative means. The Court found that the reasons set forth by the Defendants for the prohibition of same-sex marriage, such as procreation, tradition, and the protection of Pennsylvania businesses, are not so “exceedingly persuasive” to justify classifying marriage as between opposite-sex couples only or failing to recognize a valid same-sex marriage from another jurisdiction. Based on this reasoning, the Court found that both Sections 1102 and 1704 are unconstitutional violations of the Equal Protection Clause.
Following this ruling, Pennsylvania must recognize same-sex marriages, whether performed within the Commonwealth or in another jurisdiction that recognizes same-sex marriage. When the Whitewood decision is viewed along with last year’s United States Supreme Court decision in United States v. Windsor, which provided federal recognition of same-sex marriages, Pennsylvania same-sex couples may now enjoy many of the legal, tax, and healthcare benefits granted to married opposite-sex couples. While the full implications of the Whitewood decision are still to be determined, this case is an extremely significant moment for the same-sex marriage movement.