LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- A federal judge in Kentucky struck down the state's ban on gay marriage on Tuesday, though the ruling was temporarily put on hold and it was not immediately clear when same-sex couples could be issued marriage licenses.
U.S. District Judge John G. Heyburn in Louisville concluded that the state's prohibition on same-sex couples being wed violates the Equal Protection Clause of the U.S. Constitution by treating gay couples differently than straight couples. The ruling was the latest in a string of victories for gay marriage advocates across the nation, and marked the most recent conservative state to have its ban overturned.
Heyburn previously struck down Kentucky's ban on recognizing same-sex marriages from other states and countries, but he put the implementation of that ruling on hold. That decision did not deal with whether Kentucky would have to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples. Instead, Tuesday's ruling dealt directly with that question.
"Sometimes, by upholding equal rights for a few, courts necessarily must require others to forebear some prior conduct or restrain some personal instinct," Heyburn wrote. "Here, that would not seem to be the case. Assuring equal protection for same-sex couples does not diminish the freedom of others to any degree."
Heyburn noted that every federal court to consider a same-sex marriage ban has found it unconstitutional. Gay rights activists have won 18 cases in federal and state courts since the U.S. Supreme Court in June 2013 overturned a key portion of the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act, allowing married same-sex couples to receive the same federal benefits as heterosexual couples. Only Judge Paul J. Kelly Jr. of the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver has argued for keeping a state ban on same-sex marriages.
A total of 13 gay marriage cases are pending in state and federal appeals courts. Those rulings all are on hold pending appellate court decisions.
Also on Tuesday, six couples sued to overturn Colorado's gay marriage ban, a move that comes as the Republican attorney general urged Boulder officials to stop issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples. Elsewhere, the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals in Chicago ordered Indiana to recognize the marriage of a lesbian couple, one of whom is terminally ill, on an emergency basis.
The U.S. 6th Circuit Court of Appeals has scheduled arguments on rulings from Ohio, Michigan, Kentucky and Tennessee in a single session, on Aug. 6. Although the cases are unique, each deals with whether statewide gay marriage bans violate the Constitution. The Michigan case also dealt with a ban on state-issued marriage licenses to same-sex couples.
Kentucky Gov. Steve Beshear said the state will appeal Heyburn's decision, though it's not clear if the appeal will be heard alongside the others before the 6th Circuit.
The lead plaintiff, Timothy Love, 55, of Louisville, Kentucky, said he was "ecstatic" about the decision and hopes to be able to marry his partner of 34 years, Larry Ysunza, once all the appeals are complete.
"We wanted to see the entire ban struck down," Love said. "Now, the headline is 'Love Wins."'
Dan Canon, one of the attorneys for the plaintiffs, said he was excited about the ruling because the day will arrive soon when same-sex couples can get a marriage license in Kentucky.
"We believe the opinion forcefully lays to rest any notion that Kentucky's anti-marriage laws are based on anything other than discrimination against homosexuals," Canon said.
In support of the ban, Beshear argued in part that Kentucky's prohibition encouraged, promoted and supported relationships among people who have the "natural ability to procreate." A stable birth rate ensures the state's long-term economic stability, Beshear argued in court records.
Heyburn, an appointee of President George H.W. Bush, dismissed the governor's argument because excluding same-sex couples from marriage does not change the number of heterosexual couples who choose to marry and have children.
"These arguments are not those of serious people," Heyburn wrote.
Martin Cothran, a senior policy analyst with the Family Foundation of Kentucky, said Heyburn "has declared martial law on marriage policy" in Kentucky.
"By taking another important area of policy out of the hands of voters, liberal judges have struck another blow against the separation of powers that is an underlying principle of our form of government," Cothran said.
Evan Wolfson, founder of Freedom to Marry, a group backing same-sex marriage, said the ruling shows the public is ready to remove the legal bans put in place in many states.
"It is wrong for the government to deny same-sex couples the freedom to marry the person they love; a freedom that is part of every American's liberty and pursuit of happiness," Wolfson said.