Federal judge says Arizona gay marriage ban is unconstitutional

Judge John Sedwick ordered the state to 'permanently cease' its ban on gay marriage and declined to stay his order.

Brad Poole/REUTERS/File
Kathy Sowden (l.) and partner Deborah Grier hold their Certificate of Civil Union in Bisbee, Arizona, in this file photo taken July 5, 2013. A federal judge has struck down Arizona's ban on gay marriage, declaring it unconstitutional in a move that marks the latest in a series of victories for supporters of same-sex matrimony in America, court papers showed on Friday.

A federal judge has cleared the way for legally recognized gay marriages in Arizona by ruling that the state's ban on same-sex unions is unconstitutional.

The ruling Friday by US District Judge John Sedwick bars state officials from enforcing a 1996 state law and a 2008 voter-approved constitutional amendment that outlawed gay marriage.

Sedwick said in his ruling that because the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals had already ruled against gay marriage bans in Nevada and Idaho, he did not need to give a lengthy reason for his ruling and was bound by the appeals' court decision.

"A stay of this decision to allow defendants to appeal is not warranted. It is clear that an appeal to the 9th Circuit would not succeed. It is also clear ... that the High Court will turn a deaf ear on any request for relief from the 9th Circuit's decision," Sedwick said.

Sedwick, who was nominated to the federal bench in 1992 by President George H.W. Bush, ordered the state to "permanently cease" its ban on gay marriage and declined to stay his order.

Jennifer Pizer, one of the attorneys for the plaintiffs, said she was thrilled with the ruling.

"Some of our couples have been waiting decades. Their happy day has come, and we hope that Arizona embraces this decision and allows same sex couples to enjoy their constitutional rights here in Arizona," said Pizer, an attorney for the Lambda Legal law firm.

Arizona Attorney General Tom Horne's office said it was preparing to speak about the ruling on Monday. "We are ethically obligated to consult with all clients in this case and review the ruling and we don't have comment right now," Stephanie Grisham said.

The Arizona decision came after the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled on Oct. 7 that gay marriage prohibitions in Nevada and Idaho violated the equal-protection rights of same-sex couples.

Last week, the US Supreme Court declined to hear appeals from several states seeking to retain their bans on same-sex marriage. The move effectively legalized gay marriage in about 30 states and triggered a flurry of rulings and confusion in lower courts across the nation.

Sedwick's ruling came in one of two lawsuits that challenged Arizona's gay marriage ban. In that case, seven couples who live in Arizona challenged the law, including some who married in other states but were unable to have their union legally recognized in Arizona.

Lawyers who pushed both lawsuits argued the state law violated equal-protection and due-process rights and wrongfully denied their clients the benefits of marriage, such as spousal pension benefits, spousal survivorship rights and the ability to make medical decisions for each other.

Attorneys representing the state urged Sedwick to uphold the state's definition of a marriage as a union between a man and woman. They argued the ban furthers the state's interest in connecting a child to his or her biological mother and father and that voters and lawmakers enacted the ban to protect their right to define marriage for their community.

Arizona lawmakers approved a state law barring same-sex marriages in 1996. Seven years later, an Arizona appeals court upheld the constitutionality of the law. Voters in 2008 amended the Arizona Constitution to include a ban.

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