Michael De Leon, left, and Gregory Bourke filed suit Friday, July 26, 2013 challenging Kentucky's ban on same-sex marriage. Bourke and De Leon, both of Louisville, Ky., were married in Canada in 2004. Their home state does not offer legal recognition of the union. The suit filed in federal court in Louisville is the first to challenge Kentucky's law. Brett Barrouquere/AP
A federal judge ruled Wednesday that Kentucky must recognize same-sex marriages performed in other states, striking down part of the state's ban on gay marriage. The ruling was just one of a series of gay rights issues coming before courts Wednesday in several states across the South.
A gay rights group planned a legal challenge to the Louisiana Constitution's prohibition against recognizing same-sex marriages performed legally in other states, and there were similar lawsuits in Texas and Mississippi.
In a 23-page a ruling, U.S. District Judge John G. Heyburn II concluded that Kentucky's laws treat gays and lesbians differently in a "way that demeans them." A constitutional ban on same-sex marriage was approved by voters in 2004, and the out-of-state clause was part of it.
Heyburn’s decision came as a result of lawsuits brought by four gay and lesbian couples seeking to force the state to recognize their out-of-state marriages.
Heyburn did not rule on whether the state could be forced to perform same-sex marriages, because it was not a part of the lawsuit.
In a statement, president of the gay-rights organization Human Rights Campaign Chad Griffin called the ruling a "major step towards full marriage equality."
"Today, this nation took another bold step toward its fundamental constitutional principles of equal justice under the law. This amendment is unconstitutional, and we believe the only true solution to the injustice faced by these plaintiffs is full marriage equality. We hope all parties act swiftly and fairly to allow all loving and committed Kentucky couples the opportunity to marry in the state they call home," the statement read.
A similar push in Louisiana
The Forum for Equality Louisiana and a four same-sex married couples – different from those that brought the lawsuit in Kentucky – have called a Wednesday news conference on their planned legal challenge.
A 2004 amendment to the Louisiana Constitution says marriage in the traditionally conservative state "shall consist only of the union of one man and one woman," and goes on to prohibit state officials or courts from recognizing a marriage "contracted in any other jurisdiction which is not the union of one man and one woman."
Seventeen states allow gay marriage, mostly in the Northeast.
The New Orleans-based Forum for Equality and the four couples plan to challenge the recognition ban, citing equal protection and free speech rights in the U.S. Constitution. Their decision follows months of legal research after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled last year that same-sex couples should get the same federal benefits as heterosexual couples. The decision struck down parts of the Clinton-era federal Defense of Marriage Act.
That ruling led to a series of federal policy announcements regarding same-sex unions. One that comes into play in the Louisiana case is the Internal Revenue Service policy allowing legally married gay couples to file joint federal tax returns, even if they reside in states that do not recognize same-sex marriages.
A draft of the planned lawsuit in Louisiana, obtained by The Associated Press, attacks the marriage recognition ban on several fronts.
For one, it says that state revenue department policy, based on the ban, essentially requires married same-sex couples who file joint federal tax returns to falsely claim they are single on state returns – a violation, the Forum says, of free speech.
The lawsuit challenges the state's refusal to recognize both members of a same-sex union as parents of a child born to them or adopted.
Louisiana law directs taxpayers to use the same status on state tax returns that they use on federal returns. Because of the state constitution's ban, the revenue department requires that a gay couple filing as married on a federal tax return file a Louisiana return as single or head of household.
That policy essentially forces married couples who file joint federal returns to face different tax liabilities than other married couples in the state, the Forum maintains. And it requires them to falsely deny their marital status, the lawsuit draft says.
Cases across the country
The news comes as two homosexual couples challenging a ban in neighboring Texas on same-sex marriage will take their case to federal court on Wednesday.
The Texas lawsuit is the first of its kind in the region covered by the southern and deeply conservative 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, where the case will likely end up.
Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott, a Republican running for governor, opposes legalizing gay marriage and has vowed to defend the law, a state constitutional amendment that defines marriage as between one man and one woman.
But civil rights groups that recently won injunctions against similar bans in Utah and Oklahoma relied on the same argument being cited in the Texas case: Banning gay marriage violates the equal protection clause of the Constitution's 14th Amendment.
There is also another legal challenge in Mississippi, a woman is seeking to divorce the wife she married in California. She wants Mississippi to recognize the marriage so she can get the divorce.
The U.S. Supreme Court has allowed the laws in Oklahoma and Utah to remain in effect pending a ruling by the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver. If that court rules in favor of gay marriage later this year, it could clear the way for same-sex weddings in those and four neighboring states.
Al Jazeera and The Associated Press