Jones, of 'Kitzmiller' fame, assigned to oversee suit challenging Pa. gay marriage ban

By Jon Campisi | Jul 12, 2013

The federal judge from Harrisburg who made national headlines in late 2005 after he

The federal judge from Harrisburg who made national headlines in late 2005 after he

ruled against a central Pennsylvania school district in its bid to teach so-called “intelligent design” alongside traditional biology has been assigned to oversee the recent challenge to Pennsylvania’s gay marriage ban.

U.S. District Judge John E. Jones, who sits in the Middle District of Pennsylvania, will preside over a federal case initiated this week by the American Civil Liberties Union, its Keystone State chapter and other area civil rights attorneys on behalf of gay and lesbian couples challenging the constitutionality of the commonwealth’s ban on same-sex nuptials.

The ACLU lawsuit came two weeks after the United States Supreme Court struck down parts of the federal Defense of Marriage Act, agreeing with the plaintiffs that denying federal benefits to married gay couples constituted a violation of their rights.

Jones, who records show was assigned this week to handle the Pennsylvania gay marriage challenge, is perhaps best known for his December 2005 decision against the Dover Area School District in Dover Pa., which offered creationism as an alternative classroom lesson to evolution.

In his lengthy ruling, Jones determined that high school biology teachers couldn’t teach intelligent design because it is a religious viewpoint that advances “a particular version of Christianity,” stated a New York Times article from Dec. 21 of that year.

Jones’ ruling a day earlier arose out of what was then a first-in-the-nation case testing the limits public school districts have when it comes to science curriculum.

The plaintiffs in the case were a handful of Dover parents who sued after learning the local school board voted to allow ninth grade biology teachers to read to students an in-class statement introducing intelligent design, or the concept that a higher power created the earth, as an alternative theory to the scientifically accepted theory of evolution.

Jones is a Republican who was appointed to the federal bench in Harrisburg by former President George W. Bush.

In the end, the jurist determined that intelligent design instruction in a public setting violated the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

Fast forward to earlier this week, when the ACLU of Pa. and others filed Whitewood v. Corbett et al, a challenge to Pennsylvania’s own version of the Defense of Marriage Act, which makes same-sex marriage illegal in the commonwealth and also makes it so that the state doesn’t have to recognize gay marriages entered into in states where the practice is lawful.

Some in legal circles question whether Jones’ decision in the in the case of Kitzmiller et al. v. Dover Area School District et al., the intelligent design case, could signal how the judge might rule in the recent gay marriage challenge.

“When a judge has a high-profile case like Kitzmiller, and it turns into a big thing, that tells us something about the judge,” University of Pittsburgh law professor Arthur D. Hellman told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette this week.

But Jones’ decision in the Kitzmiller case irked many conservatives, who tend to vote Republican, and often hold strict religious viewpoints.

Jones himself is a member of the GOP who was appointed by a Republican president, and supported by former U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum, a conservative religious Republican from Pennsylvania.

The Post-Gazette quoted Jones as saying this week that every case is different, and he would rule on the merits of each case that comes before him accordingly.

“I take every case as it comes, but beyond that, anybody who is familiar with the Kitzmiller case understands that I gave both sides ample opportunity to present their cases,” Jones told the western Pennsylvania newspaper.

Ted Martin, the executive director of the advocacy group Equality Pennsylvania, told the Post-Gazette that while Jones is a Bush appointee, the facts of the same-sex marriage case appear to be on the side of the plaintiffs.

“When fair-minded jurists really think about the facts, they see the hollow nature of the facts against marriage equality,” he was quoted as saying. “I know for a fact that he [Jones] is a smart, thorough, fair jurist and that’s all we can ask for.”

Equality Pennsylvania, which bills itself as the state’s leading advocacy organization for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Pennsylvanians, is supporting the ACLU in its suit challenging the state’s gay marriage ban.

In a July 9 statement, Martin said that all loving couples should be able to share in the freedom to marry, as their opposite-sex partners are able to do under the law.

“This lawsuit is a critical step toward ending marriage discrimination against committed gay couples in the commonwealth,” Martin stated. “We’re honored to be working with our friends at the ACLU on this important case, and we look forward to educating the community about why marriage matters to all Pennsylvania families.”

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