- Associated Press - Wednesday, January 15, 2014

HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) - Federal court decisions to overturn bans on same-sex marriage in two conservative states may not have an immediate effect in Pennsylvania, the only northeastern state that does not recognize gay marriages.

Rather, Pennsylvania state Rep. Brian Sims said Wednesday that the gay rights community is keeping its eyes trained on a scheduled federal court trial in Harrisburg. The high-profile case was filed six months ago and represents the first known challenge to a 1996 Pennsylvania law that bans recognition of same-sex marriages.

“The communities working on marriage equality in Pennsylvania … are really paying close attention to June 9,” said Sims, a leading gay rights advocate.

About a half-dozen other cases challenging aspects of the state’s ban have been filed since and are pending in county, state and federal courts.

Still, federal court decisions in Oklahoma on Tuesday and in Utah on Dec. 20, ruling those states’ bans to be unconstitutional, are cheering Pennsylvania’s gay marriage advocates.

“We’re talking about the Bible Belt here,” Sims said. “It’s one thing when California and New York come out in favor of marriage equality.”

Lawyer Witold J. Walczak of the American Civil Liberties Union said the case’s legal team is planning on going to trial and has no plans to seek an emergency ruling to strike down Pennsylvania’s law, citing the Oklahoma and Utah decisions.

“This is a tremendously important issue and we want to do it right,” Walczak said. “Building a record at trial will help the judge appreciate the nature and full scope of the discrimination, and will be vital for the expected appeal.”

When federal appeals courts consider weighty matters, especially on constitutional law, they generally prefer to have a full record, Walczak said.

Raymond McGarry, the Montgomery County solicitor who is representing a county official who wants court approval to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples, said the Utah and Oklahoma cases will not change his strategy. The decisions, however, will buttress his argument that Pennsylvania’s marriage law is unconstitutional, he said.

Republicans who control the Pennsylvania Legislature have refused to consider bills to reverse the state’s ban on same-sex marriage, and Gov. Tom Corbett, also a Republican, opposes gay marriage.

Not including Utah and Oklahoma, 27 states still have constitutional prohibitions on same-sex marriage. Four more - Indiana, Pennsylvania, West Virginia and Wyoming - do not permit it through state laws.

The closely watched Pennsylvania case is being handled by U.S. District Judge John E. Jones III, a Republican and an appointee of former President George W. Bush who is perhaps best known for his handling of one of the biggest courtroom clashes between faith and evolution since the 1925 Scopes Monkey Trial.

In that 2005 decision, Jones barred the Dover Area School District in southern Pennsylvania from teaching “intelligent design” in biology class and said its first-in-the-nation decision to insert it into the science curriculum violated the constitutional separation of church and state. He called it “a religious view, a mere re-labeling of creationism, and not a scientific theory.”

Sims said Jones is known to be adept at handling big cases that are bound for higher courts.

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