Matt Slocum/AP

Federal judge strikes down Alaska same-sex marriage ban

US District Judge Timothy Burgess said ban violates US constitutional guarantee of due process and equal protection

Alaska will begin accepting marriage license applications from gay couples Monday after a U.S. federal judge on Sunday ruled that the state's ban on same-sex marriage was unconstitutional.

Judge Timothy Burgess of the U.S. District Court for Alaska made the ruling after hearing oral arguments on Friday challenging the state's 16-year-old ban, saying it added to discrimination already faced by gay and lesbian people every day.

"Alaska’s denial of the benefits and dignity of marriage for them only perpetuates this discrimination without legitimate grounds,” he wrote.

In 1998, Alaska voters approved a constitutional amendment that excludes same-sex couples from marriage. Burgess struck down the amendment, writing that the state's right to define marriage "is not unbounded."

"A state may not exercise its power to define marriage in a way that infringes upon individuals’ constitutional rights," he wrote.

He also barred Alaska from refusing to acknowledge lawful same-sex marriages conducted in other states.

Alaska Gov. Sean Parnell said Sunday that the state would appeal the ruling, saying the constitutionality question was in flux.

"As Alaska’s governor, I have a duty to defend and uphold the law and the Alaska Constitution," said Parnell, a Republican.

Phillip Mitchell with the state's Department of Vital Statistics said marriage license applications will be accepted first thing Monday morning.

The late Sunday afternoon announcement caught many people off guard. There were no rallies. 

"This is just an amazing day for Alaska. We're just so fortunate that so many have fought for equality for so long — I mean, decades," said Susan Tow, who along with her wife, Chris Laborde, were among couples who sought to overturn Alaska's ban.

Tow and Laborde, who married in Maryland last year, planned to meet with other plaintiffs, some by phone, later Sunday to celebrate.

The couples' lawsuit filed in May sought to bar enforcement of Alaska's constitutional ban on same-sex marriage. It also called for barring enforcement of any state laws that refuse to recognize gay marriages legally performed in other states or countries.

Burgess heard arguments Friday afternoon and promised a quick decision. He released his 25-page decision Sunday afternoon.

"Refusing the rights and responsibilities afforded by legal marriage sends the public a government-sponsored message that same-sex couples and their familial relationships do not warrant the status, benefits and dignity given to couples of the opposite sex," he wrote.

"This court finds that Alaska's same-sex marriage laws violate the due process and equal protection clauses of the Fourteenth Amendment because no state interest provides 'excessively persuasive justification' for the significant infringement of rights that they inflicted upon homosexual individuals," he wrote.

The state could appeal to the 9th Circuit Court, where chances of its winning would be slim, since the federal appeals court has already ruled against Idaho and Nevada, which made similar arguments.

Joshua Decker, the executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Alaska, said Alaska has no legal chance of prevailing at either the 9th Circuit Court or with the U.S. Supreme Court.

"It's really unfortunate the governor wants to continue to swim against the tide of history and try to perpetuate discrimination against Alaskans," he said. "We're disappointed, but that's not going to dampen our elation."

In the past year, the U.S. Supreme Court has struck down a provision of the federal Defense of Marriage Act that prevented legally married same-sex couples from receiving a range of federal benefits. Federal courts also have since struck down state constitutional bans in a number of states.

The plaintiffs are Matthew Hamby and Christopher Shelden, Chris Laborde and Susan Tow, Sean Egan and David Robinson, Tracey Wiese and Katrina Cortez, and Courtney Lamb and Stephanie Pearson. Lamb and Pearson are unmarried.

Attorney General Michael Geraghty, one of the defendants with Parnell, said earlier this year he would continue to defend the state's constitutional ban on same-sex marriage, even as federal courts across the country have struck down similar bans.

On Oct. 6 the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear appeals from several states that were seeking to retain their bans on same-sex marriage. With that decision and Burgess', gay marriage is now legal in 30 states plus Washington, D.C. But much of last week was marked by confusion as lower courts and states worked through when weddings may begin.

On Tuesday a federal appeals court in the West overturned same-sex marriage bans in Nevada and Idaho. On Thursday, West Virginia officials began issuing marriage licenses to gay couples, and Kansas' most populous county issued a marriage license Friday to a lesbian couple, believed to be the first such license in the state.

Al Jazeera and wire services

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