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Judge strikes down Oklahoma's same-sex marriage ban

A federal judge declared Oklahoma’s ban on same-sex nuptials unconstitutional on Tuesday
Darren Black Bear and Jason Pickel exchange rings they are married in El Reno, Oklahoma, Oct, 31, 2013.
Darren Black Bear and Jason Pickel exchange rings they are married in El Reno, Oklahoma, Oct, 31, 2013.

A federal judge declared Oklahoma’s ban on same-sex nuptials unconstitutional Tuesday, making it the second deep-red state in less than a month to dramatically change course on marriage equality.

“The Court holds that Oklahoma’s constitutional amendment limiting marriage to opposite-sex couples violates the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution,” wrote U.S. District Judge Terence Kern in his opinion.

"Equal protection is at the very heart of our legal system and central to our consent to be governed,” he continued. “It is not a scarce commodity to be meted out begrudgingly or in short portions. Therefore, the majority view in Oklahoma must give way to individual constitutional rights."

Gay couples will not be allowed to marry in the Sooner State just yet, however. Kern put a stay on the effect of his ruling, pending a circuit appeal.

Tuesday's decision marks a major victory for the two plaintiff couples, Mary Bishop and Sharon Baldwin, and Gay Phillips and Susan Barton, who challenged a 2004 voter-approved amendment that defined marriage as between one man and one woman.

But it also highlights a sea change in the gay rights movement, as a growing number of states–even the most conservative in the country–witness barriers to same-sex marriages collapse. At the end of 2013, a federal judge struck down Utah’s ban on same-sex marriage, allowing gay couples to marry in that state for a two-and-a-half week period, before the Supreme Court intervened. Shortly after, gay couples filed suit in Arizona against that state’s 17-year-old ban on same-sex marriage. Similar suits are pending in Pennsylvania, North Carolina, and Virginia, to name a few.

“Judge Kern has come to the conclusion that so many have before him -- that the fundamental equality of lesbian and gay couples is guaranteed by the United States Constitution,” said Human Rights Campaign President Chad Griffin in a statement on the Oklahoma ruling. “With last year’s historic victories at the Supreme Court guiding the way, it is clear that we are on a path to full and equal citizenship for all lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Americans. Equality is not just for the coasts anymore, and today’s news from Oklahoma shows that time has come for fairness and dignity to reach every American in all 50 states.”

Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt's office has yet to comment on the ruling, but his office will likely appeal the decision with the Denver-based 10th Circuit Court, which already gave an encouraging signal to the Utah plaintiffs when it refused to put a hold on same-sex nuptials. The U.S. Supreme Court ended up granting the Utah halt, but did not issue a corresponding opinion indicating how it would rule should the case land in its chamber.

The Oklahoma ruling follows an historic year for marriage equality that doubled from 9 to 18 the number of states where it is legal. That number dropped to 17 after the Supreme Court intervened in Utah, but the federal government promised to honor the roughly 1,000 same-sex marriages performed in the state during the brief stint they were allowed. The U.S. Justice Department’s decision to give federal benefits to gay couples married in Utah falls in line with a June decision by the nation’s highest court that gutted the federal Defense of Marriage Act, clearing the way for federal agencies to begin recognizing same-sex marriages.