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.
US 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 Governor Tom Corbett, so the order went into immediate effect. The governor did not 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 accepted 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 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.