LOUISVILLE, KENTUCKY – A federal judge signed an order Thursday directing officials in Kentucky to immediately recognize same-sex marriages performed in other states and countries, capping a hectic 24 hours in the battle over gay rights that is raging across America.
The Kentucky decision was just the latest victory for gay rights advocates. A federal judge on Wednesday declared a same-sex marriage ban in deeply conservative Texas unconstitutional, handing same-sex marriage proponents their biggest victory yet, pending an appeal that will likely go to the U.S. Supreme Court. It followed similar recent decisions in Utah, Oklahoma and Virginia.
Then on Wednesday night, Arizona’s Republican governor vetoed a bill passed by her own party’s state legislators that was designed to protect people who assert their religious beliefs in refusing service to gays. Opponents called it legalized discrimination of gays. The bill was part of a backlash against an unprecedented barrage of marriage-equality lawsuits in states where voters have overwhelmingly opposed recognition of gay and lesbian couples.
Kentucky’s ruling Thursday only requires the state to recognize the marriages of gay and lesbian couples performed in other states or countries. It does not deal with whether the state can be required to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples.
Judge John G. Heyburn II issued a final order overturning part of Kentucky ban on gay marriages, making official his Feb. 12 preliminary ruling that the state’s ban on same-sex marriages treated “gay and lesbian persons differently in a way that demeans them.”
The ruling didn’t affect a related lawsuit seeking to force the state to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples, which will be decided later this year. Nevertheless, it still drew the ire of religious leaders who said Heyburn’s decision takes away Kentucky’s right to determine its policies regarding marriage.
The order means married same-sex couples may change their names on official identifications and documents and obtain any other benefits of a married couple in Kentucky. Kentucky’s attorney general has asked for a delay, which hasn’t been ruled upon.
Proponents of same-sex marriage have been emboldened by last year’s landmark U.S. Supreme Court ruling that said legally married gay couples could not be denied federal benefits. Their quick series of legal victories has come amid growing support for gay marriage, according to polls.
Opponents of gay marriage have been scrambling to respond.
Bills are making their way through several state legislatures, some intended to protect gay-marriage bans, others to protect individuals or businesses who, for religious reasons, don’t want to serve same-sex couples. Arizona’s was the first religious exemption bill to pass a state legislature.
Kentucky’s constitutional ban was approved by voters in 2004, amid a wave of bans passed around the United States. Kentucky’s included a clause that out-of-state same-sex marriages would not be recognized.
Dawn Elliott, an attorney for a couple pursuing recognition of a marriage performed in Canada, praised the ruling.
“It’s a great day to be from the Commonwealth of Kentucky,” Elliott said. “I hope that the attorney general and governor that I voted for, don’t jump on the appeal bandwagon.”
It was unclear if or how many people would seek to immediately take advantage of the rights recognized in the rulings. Elliott and co-counsel Shannon Fauver said their clients were considering doing so Thursday afternoon, but had not decided.
Nore Ghibaudy, a spokesman for the Jefferson County Clerk of Court, said until the state issues a directive notifying clerks of the legal change, no same-sex name changes or other legal documents will be issued.
Allison Martin, a spokeswoman for Kentucky Attorney General Jack Conway, said the office was reviewing the ruling and would have a statement later Thursday.
In his 23-page ruling issued Feb. 12, Heyburn concluded that the government may define marriage and attach benefits to it but cannot “impose a traditional or faith-based limitation” without a sufficient justification for it.”
“Assigning a religious or traditional rationale for a law does not make it constitutional when that law discriminates against a class of people without other reasons,” wrote Heyburn, an appointee of President George Bush.