AUSTIN, Texas - A federal judge declared a same-sex marriage ban in deeply conservative Texas unconstitutional, prompting celebrations by gay marriage advocates over what could be their biggest victory yet in the U.S.
Wednesday's ruling will allow the second-most populous state to continue enforcing the ban pending an appeal that likely will go to the U.S. Supreme Court. It follows similar recent decisions in Utah, Oklahoma and Virginia.
Proponents of same-sex marriage have been emboldened by last year's landmark Supreme Court ruling that said legally married gay couples could not be denied federal benefits. Lawsuits challenging same-sex marriage bans have been filed in dozens of states.
The quick series of legal victories has come amid growing support for gay marriage, according to polls. Opponents of gay marriage have been scrambling to respond. Bills are making their way through several state legislatures, some intended to protect gay-marriage bans, others to protect individuals or businesses who, for religious reasons, don't want to serve same-sex couples.
In another closely watched case, Arizona's governor on Wednesday vetoed a Republican bill that was designed to give added protection from lawsuits to people who assert their religious beliefs in refusing service to gays. Opponents called it an open attack on gays that invited discrimination.
In Texas, U.S. Judge Orlando Garcia issued a preliminary injunction after two gay couples challenged a Texas constitutional amendment and a longstanding law.
"Without a rational relation to a legitimate governmental purpose, state-imposed inequality can find no refuge in our United States Constitution," Garcia wrote. "These Texas laws deny plaintiffs access to the institution of marriage and its numerous rights, privileges, and responsibilities for the sole reason that Plaintiffs wish to be married to a person of the same sex."
Garcia said the couples are likely to win their case and the ban should be lifted, but said he would not enforce his ruling pending one by a federal court of appeals, which already is hearing two other states' cases. He also will give Texas time to appeal to a federal appeals court.
Todd Staples, a candidate for lieutenant governor who drafted the Texas constitutional amendment banning gay marriage, denounced the court's decision.
"I am disappointed that judicial activism is once again trying to trump the will of the people. This ruling is the poster child of the culture war occurring in America today," he said.
Texas Gov. Rick Perry in a statement said: "Texans spoke loud and clear by overwhelmingly voting to define marriage as a union between a man and a woman in our Constitution, and it is not the role of the federal government to overturn the will of our citizens."
At least 17 states, mostly in the Northeast, and the Washington capital district now allow marriage of same-sex couples.
The Supreme Court, in its decision last June, declined to rule on the merits of a voter-approved California law that defined marriage as between a man and a woman. The effect of the decision was to allow same-sex unions to resume in California, but the high court said nothing about the right to marry.
The court did order the federal government to recognize valid same-sex marriages by striking down the part of the Clinton-era Defence of Marriage Act that denied same-sex married couples the federal benefits and rights enjoyed by heterosexual couples.
Every judge who has decided a same-sex marriage case since that ruling has come down on the side of gay marriage and has drawn heavily on the high court's opinions.
Opponents of gay marriage, meanwhile, have called for extraordinary measures in response.
A bill recently introduced in Congress by conservative Republicans titled the State Marriage Defence Act would require the federal government to respect each state's determinations of its residents' marital status when applying federal law. It has no chance of passage in the Democratic-led Senate.
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