Several couples' long struggle for equality neared an end Wednesday at the York County Register of Wills Office.

Nearly 20 years after narrow-minded state lawmakers denied them their right to wed, a federal judge the day before struck down Pennsylvania's 1996 ban on gay marriage.

State bans on same-sex marriage have been falling since last year when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled part of the federal Defense of Marriage Act unconstitutional. Pennsylvania is now the 19th state — the last in the Northeast — where gays and lesbians can legally marry.

"We are a better people than what these laws represent, and it is time to discard them into the ash heap of history," U.S. District Judge John E. Jones III wrote in his eagerly awaited opinion released Tuesday.

Gov. Tom Corbett could have tried to root through that heap, hoping to delay justice by appealing the judge's decision.

Jones declined to put a hold on his ruling pending a possible appeal, clearing the way for county offices to begin issuing licenses to same-sex couples.

Uncertainty over the governor's next move, combined with a state law that requires a three-day waiting period between license and marriage, prompted a rush of applications around the state Wednesday morning.

York County Register of Wills Brad Jacobs had issued four licenses to same-sex couples by early afternoon.

The sense of urgency was justified.

Shortly after Jones issued his ruling, a federal appeals court put a hold on same-sex marriages in Idaho pending an appeal on a ruling this month that overturned that state's ban.

Late Wednesday Corbett announced he would spare Pennsylvania gays and lesbians further discrimination and allow the ruling to stand.

It's the right decision and perfectly aligned with the opinions of most Americans. A new Gallup poll released Wednesday shows a record 55 percent support gay marriage — 78 percent among 18- to 29-year-olds.

Jones acknowledged some people are "uncomfortable" with same-sex marriage, but also noted that doesn't make bans an less unconstitutional.

"Nor can past tradition trump the bedrock constitutional guarantees of due process and equal protection," he wrote. "Were that not so, ours would still be a racially segregated nation according to the now rightfully discarded doctrine of 'separate but equal.'"

Corbett's decision placed him, belatedly, on the right side of history in this case.