Updated: 7:00 p.m. EST
LOUISVILLE, Ky. — A federal judge ruled Wednesday that Kentucky must recognize same-sex marriages performed in other states, part of an unprecedented barrage of marriage equality lawsuits in states where voters have overwhelmingly opposed recognition of gay and lesbian couples.
“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,” wrote Heyburn, an appointee of Republican President George H.W. Bush.
His decision coincided with legal attacks Wednesday on gay-marriage bans in three other socially conservative states – Texas, Louisiana and Missouri – and was issued just a few weeks after federal judges in Utah and Oklahoma struck down the voter-approved bans in those states.
According to the advocacy group Freedom to Marry, there are now 45 pending marriage-equality cases in 24 of the 33 states that do not allow same-sex marriage. Seventeen states and the District of Columbia have legalized such unions, while three other states – Colorado, Nevada and Oregon – grant marriage-like rights though civil unions or domestic partnerships.
The stage for the current wave of litigation was set by the U.S. Supreme Court last June, when it ordered the federal government to recognize valid same-sex marriages, but stopped short of striking down state laws banning them. Gay-rights activists hope that one or more of the lawsuits filed since June or planned for the near future will reach the high court and lead to nationwide legalization.
“One of the 40-plus ongoing cases, or even some other one, could conceivably reach the Supreme Court as soon as 2015, or within a few years later, so the clock is ticking,” said Freedom to Marry president Evan Wolfson.
“The aim is not just to get to the Supreme Court, but to win when we get there,” Wolfson said.
The Kentucky decision came in lawsuits brought by four gay and lesbian couples seeking to force the state to recognize their out-of-state marriages.
The ruling only requires Kentucky to recognize such marriages. It does not deal with the question of whether the state can be required to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples; that issue wasn’t brought up in the lawsuits.
The ruling drew the ire of religious leaders who said Heyburn’s decision takes away Kentucky’s right to determine its policies regarding marriage.
Paul Chitwood of the Kentucky Baptist Convention, the state’s largest religious organization with 750,000 members, called the ruling “tragic and disappointing.”
“This decision moves us down the slippery slope toward launching Kentucky into moral chaos and depriving children of their innat e need of both a father and a mother,” Chitwood said.
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