By David DeKok
HARRISBURG, Pennsylvania (Reuters) - Pennsylvania's ban on same-sex marriage was struck down by a federal judge on Tuesday in the latest court decision in the United States confirming gay couples' rights to wed.
Finding Pennsylvania's 1996 Defense of Marriage Act unconstitutional, U.S. District Court Judge John Jones III wrote: "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."
The ruling makes Pennsylvania the 19th U.S. state where gay marriage is allowed, a movement that has gained momentum since the Supreme Court ruled last June that legally married same-sex couples are eligible for federal benefits.
Most recent court rulings allowing gay marriage have included a stay pending appeal, but Jones' ruling does not.
There is, however, a three-day waiting period for all weddings in Pennsylvania.
The judge 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 to school segregation laws overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court's 1954 landmark Brown vs. Board of Education decision.
"We are a better people than what these laws represent, and it is time to discard them into the ash heap of history," he wrote.
The legal challenge to Pennsylvania's Defense of Marriage Law was filed last July by several gay couples.
Challengers argued that under the ban, gay couples were denied an inheritance tax exemption for surviving spouses and survivor benefits to partners of police officers killed in the line of duty.
"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," said Reggie Shuford, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union, which was involved in the case.
The state has 30 days to decide whether to appeal, the ACLU said.
The National Organization for Marriage, which argues marriage is the union of a man and a woman, called the ruling "brazen and unjust" and said it would like to see the issue decided by voters.
"The ruling unilaterally makes an end-run around the democratic process and places the capricious will of one man above the desires of millions of citizens," said Brian Brown, NOM president, in a statement.
Pennsylvania Attorney General Kathleen Kane announced after the lawsuit was filed that she would not defend the case, prompting calls for impeachment from 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."
Governor Tom Corbett appointed William Lamb, a fellow Republican and former prosecutor, to handle the case.
(Editing by Ellen Wulfhorst, G Crosse, Gunna Dickson and Eric Walsh)