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Federal judge strikes down Kentucky’s ban on same-sex marriage

Gay rights advocate Vin Testa waves a rainbow flag in front of the Supreme Court on June 26, 2013. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

A federal judge on Tuesday ruled against Kentucky’s ban on same-sex marriage, though gay couples in the state won’t be able to get marriage licenses at least for now.

Judge John G. Heyburn II, of the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Kentucky, ruled that the state’s marriage ban violated the constitutional rights of same-sex couples, but stayed his decision pending appeal.

“[A]s this Court has respectfully explained, in America even sincere and long-held religious views do not trump the constitutional rights of those who happen to have been out-voted,” he wrote in his opinion.

The Kentucky decision is the latest in a string of federal court rulings against state same-sex marriage bans, the latest of which saw Indiana’s ban struck last week. A  federal appeals court there delivered a much more limited victory, also on Tuesday, ordering Indiana to recognize the marriage of a lesbian couple “on an emergency basis.” One of the spouses is terminally ill fighting ovarian cancer.

Tuesday’s ruling in Kentucky represents the 23rd consecutive pro-marriage ruling since a key Supreme Court decision last summer, according to a list maintained by Freedom to Marry, a group that advocates for same-sex marriage. That ruling, in U.S. v. Windsor, struck down a key part of the Defense of Marriage Act, granting married same-sex couples federal recognition and arming judges with the legal precedent to overturn state bans. Eighteen rulings have been issued by federal courts, affecting policies in 14 states, according to Freedom to Marry. Challenges have been filed against every state gay marriage ban and bans have been struck in 10 states, the group says.

Judge Heyburn in February ruled that Kentucky must recognize out-of-state same-sex marriages and, in doing so, alluded to the decision that came Tuesday. The February case, he wrote at the time, did not deal with the constitutionality of Kentucky’s ban, but, he added, “there is no doubt that Windsor and this Court’s analysis suggest a possible result to that question.” 

That result came, at least for now, in Heyburn’s ruling. In it, he argued that allowing same-sex marriages places little burden on opponents.

“Sometimes, by upholding equal rights for a few, courts necessarily must require others to forebear some prior conduct or restrain some personal instinct. Here, that would not seem to be the case,” he wrote. “Assuring equal protection for same-sex couples does not diminish the freedom of others to any degree. Thus, same-sex couples’ right to marry seems to be a uniquely ‘free’ constitutional right.”

Proponents of same-sex marriage are holding out hope that the Supreme Court will take up the issue soon. A federal judge has ruled in favor of same-sex marriage rights — either by striking a ban or by ruling states must recognize marriages performed elsewhere — in each of the four states within the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit, which plans to hear cases from each state on Aug. 6. The states in the 6th Circuit are Kentucky, Michigan, Ohio and Tennessee.

Niraj Chokshi is a general assignment reporter for The Washington Post.

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