A federal judge has ruled Kentucky’s ban on recognizing same-sex marriages performed in other states violates the U.S. Constitution.
U.S. District Judge John Heyburn ruled that while religious beliefs are important to society they aren’t a justification to discriminate based on a class of people. The suit was brought by four gay and lesbian couples.
Heyburn based his decision on the 14th Amendment’s equal-protection clause.
He wrote in the memorandum accompanying his order that “recognizing same-sex marriage clashes with many accepted norms in Kentucky” and went on to say many Kentuckians “may be confused — even angry” when a court decision like his calls those views into question.
Heyburn said those reactions “are understandable and deserve an answer.” He writes that “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 ruling strikes down a 1998 state law and part of a 2004 amendment to the Kentucky constitution defining marriage as between “one man and one woman.”
The judge also cited the U.S. Supreme Court ruling striking down the federal Defense of Marriage Act in striking down part of the 2004 amendment which says “only a marriage between one man and one woman shall be valid or recognized as a marriage in Kentucky.”
In his 23-page opinion, Heyburn does not say Kentucky must permit same-sex marriages to be performed in the state but that it must recognize those from other states. He said he will schedule a future hearing to explain how his ruling should be implemented.
He rejected arguments by the Family Foundation that recognizing same-sex marriages would undercut the role of procreation in marriage, noting that some heterosexual couples also do not have children.
Reaction to Heyburn’s ruling was varied, with many conservatives and religious groups decrying it while others, like Kentucky House Speaker Greg Stumbo, D-Prestonsburg, said the law supports Heyburn’s decision.
For Cortney Langdon, 26, of Louisville, it was both unexpected and exciting.
“I was very shocked,” said Langdon who got the news via a text message from her partner Rachel Longley, 25, also of Louisville. The couple 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.”
Gov. Steve Beshear said his office had just received the ruling and has begun reviewing it. But he said he doesn’t think the ruling will affect either the 2014 General Assembly or elections.
“I think ultimately it will be decided by the United States Supreme Court,” Beshear said. “It really doesn’t lend itself to legislation at this point.”
But Rep. Stan Lee, R-Lexington, took to the House floor a few minutes after Beshear’s comments to say the state should appeal the ruling to uphold the “Kentucky constitution and the will of the people.” He said the ruling “breaks my heart.” Most of the Republicans in the House and many in the gallery overhead gave Lee a loud ovation.
Rep. Mary Lou Marzian, D-Louisville, answered by telling colleagues the public is weary of “wasting our tax dollars to discriminate against our gay neighbors” who work, shop and pay taxes. She reminded them she was one of 11 lawmakers to vote against the 2004 measure, “And we all got re-elected.”
Senate President Robert Stivers, R-Manchester, said he hadn’t had time to review the ruling but thought the vote of Kentuckians should have settled the matter. No one spoke on the Senate floor Wednesday about the ruling as they did in the House.
Martin Cothran, spokesman for The Family Foundation, blasted the ruling saying it proves Kentucky votes don’t count when they don’t correspond to the “political ideology of liberal judges.”
Paul Chitwood, executive director of the Kentucky Baptist Convention, called Heyburn’s ruling “tragic and disappointing.”
Heyburn was appointed to the federal bench by President George H.W. Bush in 1992 after being nominated by Republican U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell. But that didn’t keep McConnell, who is running for re-election this year, from criticizing the ruling.
He said Kentucky voters overwhelmingly approved the amendment, adding that he supports “traditional marriage” and will continue to fight “to make sure Kentuckians define marriage as we see fit and never have a decision forced on us by interests outside our state.”
He said that “only the people of Kentucky, through the legislative process, should have the authority to change the law, not the courts.” His Republican primary opponent Matt Bevin said he is “deeply disappointed” by the ruling, calling it “judicial activism (which) hurts America’s democratic process.” He also noted Heyburn once worked for McConnell who nominated him to the bench.
Charly Norton, spokeswoman for Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Alison Lundergan Grimes, issued a statement saying Grimes “has been married for seven years and has stated publicly that she wouldn’t want to deny other couples the opportunity to make that same commitment.”
But Norton said Grimes also believes “churches should not be forced to recognize anything inconsistent with their teachings.”
Ronnie Ellis writes for CNHI News Service and is based in Frankfort. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow CNHI News Service stories on Twitter at www.twitter.com/cnhifrankfort.