Federal judge strikes down Oklahoma ban on same-sex marriage

Published 01/14 2014 07:23PM

Updated 01/14 2014 07:25PM

By M. Alex Johnson, Staff Writer, NBC News

Oklahoma's ban on same-sex marriage was struck down Tuesday by a federal judge who declared it a fundamental violation of equal rights.
U.S. Senior District Judge Terence Kern ruled in Tulsa that a state constitutional amendment limiting marriage to opposite-sex couples ran afoul of the U.S. Constitution's guarantee of equal protection under the 14th Amendment.

The ruling won't immediately let same-sex couples get married in Oklahoma, however. Kern stayed the ruling pending resolution of a similar challenge to Utah's ban on same-sex marriage, which is being heard by the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver.

Chad Griffin, president of the Human Rights Campaign, a gay rights activist group, said it was clear that 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."
But Gov. Mary Fallin said she was "disappointed" by the ruling, noting that the restriction was passed by Oklahoma voters nine years ago with 75 percent support.

"The people of Oklahoma have spoken on this issue," Fallin said in a statement. "I support the right of Oklahoma's voters to govern themselves on this and other policy matters."

The case, Bishop et al. v. United States, involves two couples who challenged Oklahoma's ban in 2004.
One of the couples who brought the suit has been "in a loving, committed relationships for many years," Kern wrote in a 68-page opinion. "They own property together, wish to retire together, wish to make medical decisions for one another, and wish to be recognized as a married couple with all its attendant rights and responsibilities."

But they are excluded from marriage, he wrote, "without a legally sufficient justification."
Kern called Oklahoma's ban "an arbitrary, irrational exclusion of just one class of Oklahoma citizens from a governmental benefit," declaring:
"Equal protection is at the very heart of our legal system and central to our consent to be governed. It is not a scarce commodity to be meted out begrudgingly or in short portions."

The case involves two couples — Mary Bishop and Sharon Baldwin, and Gay Phillips and Susan Barton — who challenged Oklahoma's ban in 2004 in a lawsuit that also challenged the federal Defense of Marriage Act, or DOMA. A trial had been scheduled for May 2012, but it was put on hold while other same-sex marriage worked their way through the federal courts.

"We're pretty elated," Baldwin told NBC station KJRH of Tulsa. "It's been a long time coming."

Kern ruled only on the part of the suit addressing the Oklahoma state constitution, noting that the key provision of DOMA has already been declared unconstitutional.

Bishop, assistant editor of The Tulsa World, and Baldwin, a city editor at the newspaper, exchanged vows in a commitment ceremony in Florida in 2000. In 2009, they were denied an Oklahoma marriage license.

Barton, a doctor of sociology, and Phillips, an adjunct professor at Tulsa Community College, have been a couple since 1984 and were married in
Canada in 2005 and in California in 2008.

Pete Williams of NBC News contributed to this report.

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