A federal judge ruled on Wednesday that Kentucky must recognize same-sex marriages performed in other states, despite its own ban on the practice, arguing that discriminating against a class of people for religious or traditional reasons is unconstitutional. Conservative groups have called the decision a "deep betrayal."
"In the end, the Court concludes that Kentucky's denial of recognition for valid same-sex marriages violates the United States Constitution's guarantee of equal protection under the law, even under the most deferential standard of review," said U.S. District Judge John G. Heyburn II in his 23-page ruling.
"Once the government defines marriage and attaches benefits to that definition, it must do so constitutionally. It cannot impose a traditional or faith-based limitation upon a public right without a sufficient justification for it."
Kentucky approved a constitutional ban on gay marriage, which included an out-of-state clause, in 2004. Gay and lesbian couples who have been married outside the state filed lawsuits against this clause, however, demanding that their unions be recognized.
Conservative groups such as the Family Research Council have reacted with disappointment to Judge Heyburn's ruling, with the group's president, Tony Perkins, calling it a "deep betrayal of a judicial system infected with activist judges who are legislating from the bench."
"If these judges want to change duly enacted laws passed by the people and their representatives, they should resign their life-time appointments to the bench and run for the state legislature or Congress," Perkins said in a statement, and reminded readers that in 2007, 75 percent of Kentucky voters defended the traditional definition of marriage between one man and one woman.
The Courier-Journal reported that the lawsuit was brought by four gay and lesbian couples, including Gregory Bourke and Michael Deleon of Louisville, who were married in Ontario, Canada, in 2004; Jimmy Meade and Luther Barlowe, who were married in Davenport, Iowa, in 2009; Randell Johnson and Paul Campion, who were married in Riverside, Calif., in 2008; and Kimberly Franklin and Tamera Boyd, who were married in Stratford, Conn., in 2010.
The plaintiffs have welcomed the ruling, even reacting with surprise that the judge's decision came so quickly after the lawsuit was filed in July 2013.
"The word was it could happen any time and I wasn't prepared for it," said 55-year-old Bourke. "It's what we hoped for."
One of the lawyers for the same-sex couples argued that religion cannot be imposed on citizens.
"In theory, same-sex and opposite sex couples should have the same rights," attorney Shannon Fauver said. "We're so excited. Legally, I don't think he had a choice. He had to rule in our favor."
Perkins said, however, that Americans are increasingly being forced to "finance and celebrate" unions that not only infringe on religious liberty but also go against the traditional family unit of one mother and one father.
"Rather than live-and-let-live, this court by redefining marriage will create a level of inequality that has never been seen in our country as people are forced to suppress or violate the basic teachings of their faith," the FRC president concluded.
Paul Chitwood, executive director of the Kentucky Baptist Convention, the state's largest religious organization, told AP that the ruling is both "tragic and disappointing."
"This decision moves us down the slippery slope toward launching Kentucky into moral chaos and depriving children of their innate need of both a father and a mother," Chitwood said, adding that he will be praying for an appeals process.