FRANKFORT, Ky. — A federal judge says Kentucky must recognize same-sex marriages performed in other states, even though he stopped short of forcing the state to allow the unions within its own borders.
Ruling in a case brought by four gay and lesbian couples, U.S. District Judge John G. Heyburn II struck down a 1998 Kentucky law and part of a 2004 amendment to the state Constitution that defines marriage as a union between "one man and one woman." He cited the U.S. Supreme Court's decision last year that overturned part of the federal Defense of Marriage Act in ruling that Kentucky violated the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.
In a memo accompanying his order, Heyburn wrote, “recognizing same-sex marriage clashes with many accepted norms in Kentucky." He acknowledged that many Kentuckians will be “confused – even angry” about his decision. But, he added, “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.”
The 23-page opinion did not say that Kentucky must permit same-sex marriage - only that it must recognize those performed elsewhere.
Seventeen states currently allow same-sex marriage. Officials in Nevada said this week they will no longer defend their state's ban on same-sex marriage in federal court. Several others recognize civil unions, domestic partnerships or same-sex marriages performed elsewhere.
Reaction to the judge's ruling in Kentucky was mixed, though some of it was pitched.
State Rep. Stan Lee, R-Lexington, took to the state House floor to say Kentucky should appeal the ruling to uphold its Constitution and the will of its people. He said the ruling “breaks my heart.”
Most of the Republicans in the House and many in the gallery gave Lee a loud ovation.
Martin Cothran, spokesman for The Family Foundation of Kentucky, said the ruling proves that Kentucky's votes don’t count when they're out of step with the “political ideology of liberal judges.”
Paul Chitwood, director of the Kentucky Baptist Convention, called it “tragic and disappointing.”
And U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell, who is running for re-election, criticized the ruling even though he had recommended Heyburn for the bench. Heyburn was nominated by President George H.W. Bush in 1992.
McConnell said he supports “traditional marriage” and will continue a fight to ensure “Kentuckians define marriage as we see fit and never have a decision forced on us by interests outside our state.”
Gov. Steve Beshear, a Democrat, said his office was still reviewing the ruling.
“I think ultimately it will be decided by the United States Supreme Court,” he said.
Rep. Mary Lou Marzian, D-Louisville, told colleagues the public is weary of “wasting our tax dollars to discriminate against our gay neighbors." She noted that she was among 11 Kentucky lawmakers who voted against the 2004 measure, “And we all got re-elected.”
For Cortney Langdon, 26, of Louisville, the ruling was both unexpected and exciting.
“I was very shocked,” said Langdon, who got the news via text message from her partner, Rachel Longley, 25. The two were married six months ago in Maryland but hadn’t expected things to change so soon in Kentucky.
“We were both very surprised,” said Langdon. “But we found it a reason to celebrate again, even though it’s been six months since we got married.”
Ronnie Ellis is a state reporter for CNHI newspapers in Kentucky. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/cnhifrankfort.