PHILADELPHIA - Pennsylvania's ban on gay marriage was overturned by a federal judge Tuesday in a decision that legalized same-sex unions throughout the Northeast and sent couples racing to pick up licenses.
U.S. District Judge John E. Jones III called the plaintiffs - a widow, 11 couples and one couple's teenage daughters - courageous for challenging the constitutionality of the ban passed by lawmakers in 1996.
"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.
Jones declined to put his ruling on hold for a possible appeal by Republican Gov. Tom Corbett, so the order went into immediate effect. The governor did not immediately announce Tuesday whether he would appeal.
County offices in Philadelphia stayed open late to handle marriage applications, while officials in Pittsburgh were closed for election day but accepting them online.
Couples must wait three days before getting married, unless a sympathetic judge grants a waiver.
Joe Parisi told his partner to "jet out of work" and get to Philadelphia City Hall.
"We didn't want to take the chance of having this be challenged, and missing out on our opportunity," said Parisi, 30, of Philadelphia, who plans to marry 28-year-old Steven Seminelli. They were among the first to get a license Tuesday afternoon, just hours after Jones' ruling.
Jones also ordered Pennsylvania to recognize same-sex marriages performed elsewhere.
"It's everything we had hoped for," said Witold "Vic" Walczac, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania, which pursued the case. "There's nothing that the government can do that's more intrusive than standing in the way of two people who love each other and want to get married."
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, and 43 percent of Americans would live in a state with full marriage equality, according to the advocacy group Freedom to Marry.
The ACLU had argued that the bans deprive same-sex couples and their families of the legal protections, tax benefits and social status afforded to married couples.
Corbett's office was left to defend the law after Attorney General Kathleen Kane, a Democrat, refused to do so.
"We're currently reviewing all the legal issues presented in the opinion," said Joshua Maus, a spokesman for Corbett's legal office.
The Pennsylvania lawsuit, filed July 9, was the first known challenge to the state ban. At least five later test cases emerged, including one over a suburban county's decision last year to issue 174 marriage licenses to same-sex couples, before a court order to stop doing so. Officials in Montgomery County were trying Tuesday to have that order lifted.
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.
Jones, a Republican and an appointee of former President George W. Bush, was previously known for a 2005 decision in which he barred a Pennsylvania school district from teaching "intelligent design" in biology class, saying it was "a mere re-labeling of creationism."
The torrent of celebration from Democrats and supporters Tuesday was met with silence by the state's Republican leaders. The conservative Pennsylvania Family Institute argued that the decisions to throw out marriage bans have not been weighed by any federal appeals courts.
"What Judge Jones has done is extralegal, going beyond what the law or the constitution requires, (and) ... immediately undermines the Democratic process," said the institute's president, Michael Geer.
Associated Press writers Kathy Matheson and JoAnn Loviglio in Philadelphia and Marc Levy in Harrisburg contributed to this report.