LAWRENCEVILLE, GA., MAY 26 -- A Georgia ban on Ku Klux Klan members wearing masks in public has been struck down as unconstitutional by a judge who called the racist organization "persecuted."

The state filed a notice of appeal soon after State Court Judge Howard Cook ruled Friday in favor of a Klan member who challenged the 1951 law by wearing the white headgear during a one-man demonstration in February.

The judge said the law violated the Klansman's First Amendment rights to free speech, free association and equal protection, and said the ban was unconstitutionally vague and broad.

Cook called the Klan "a persecuted group," and said threats to its members meant they might need the anonymity of masks to exercise their constitutional rights.

David Fuller, the assistant Gwinnett County solicitor who defended the law during a trial last month, said the ruling could have disastrous consequences.

"When this statute was enacted there were a lot of people being murdered and terrorized," he said. "There was vandalism of property and this act stopped that. . . . The Klan is not deserving of the anonymity the mask would afford it."

The ruling would give the Klan "carte blanche to revert to how it operated in the '30s and '40s," Fuller said.

Klansman Shade Miller Jr., 27, of Calhoun, was arrested and cited for a misdemeanor after he wore his mask in front of a courthouse. He testified he wore it because he feared for his and his family's safety if his Klan affiliation were known.

Miller's attorney, Michael Hauptman, criticized the state for defending the ban.

"The statute is clearly unconstitutional. The state would be better off in spending its resources drafting a constitutional statute rather than defending this one," Hauptman said.

Hauptman had argued the law could be used against anyone whose views were controversial, but witnesses for the state said the Klan's history of violence made it necessary.