Skip to main content

Federal judge: Oklahoma ban on same-sex marriage unconstitutional

By Greg Botelho, CNN
updated 9:06 PM EST, Tue January 14, 2014
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • NEW: Expert: Federal judges striking down state gay marriage bans "looks like a trend"
  • A federal judge says Oklahoma's same-sex marriage ban violates U.S. Constitution
  • He stays enforcement of the ruling, pending appeals; this also happened in a Utah case
  • Governor says she's "troubled" the government "ignored" the people's will

(CNN) -- A federal judge ruled Tuesday that an Oklahoma law limiting marriage to heterosexual couples violates the U.S. Constitution, giving yet another victory to same-sex marriage supporters.

U.S. District Court Judge Terence Kern said the court would not immediately enforce this ruling -- therefore not opening the doors right away to marriages of gay and lesbian couples in Oklahoma -- pending appeals. Still, he delivered a clear opinion on how the voter-approved Oklahoma state constitutional amendment relates to the U.S. Constitution.

"The Court holds that Oklahoma's constitutional amendment limiting marriage to opposite-sex couples violates the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution," the judge wrote, saying that protection "is at the very heart of our legal system."

His decision specifically deals with "Part A" of an Oklahoma Constitutional amendment that says, in part, "marriage in this state shall consist only of the union of one man and one woman."

Kern said that "the Court's rationality review reveals Part A an arbitrary, irrational exclusion of just one class of Oklahoma citizens from a government benefit." Proponents of the state constitutional measure, he points out, "purposefully (drew a line) between two groups of Oklahoma citizens -- same-sex couples desiring an Oklahoma marriage license and opposite-sex couples desiring (a) marriage license."

CNN -- which has a copy of the ruling -- first learned of the court's decision via Twitter.

This case was first brought by a pair of lesbian couples in 2004, the same year that Oklahoma citizens voted to put a ban on same-sex marriage in their state's constitution.

Susan Barton, one of the four women involved, told CNN that she is "absolutely thrilled" with the decision, saying it was worth the long fight. She and her partner, Gay Phillips, have lived in Oklahoma for more than 50 years. They have been together for the past three decades and got a civil union in Vermont and have marriage licenses issued from Vancouver, British Columbia, and San Francisco.

"You can't stay in this for nine years and not have faith," Barton said. "... I feel like we are already married, (but) I want our state to recognize our marriage."

CNN received no immediate response from the Tulsa County district attorney's office, which was among those arguing for the state's same-sex marriage ban.

Gov. Mary Fallin spoke out against the ruling, which she said defied the views of 75% of those who voted in favor of limiting marriage to a man and woman.

"I support the right of Oklahoma's voters to govern themselves on this and other policy matters," Fallin said. "I am disappointed in the judge's ruling and troubled that the will of the people has once again been ignored by the federal government."

Learn more about same-sex marriage

Several courts ruled on it over what now has nearly been a decade, but the momentous decisions were indirectly related. Those were made last summer by the U.S. Supreme Court, which stated that the federal Defense of Marriage Act "violates basic due process and equal protection principles applicable to the Federal Government."

That meant the U.S. government would -- for tax and other legal purposes -- recognize same-sex marriages. However, the rulings did not directly address the many states, like Oklahoma, which have prohibited such marriages within their borders.

Yet it has opened the door for lower federal courts weighing in on the matter, like U.S. District Judge Robert Shelby's December 20 decision striking down Utah's ban on same-sex marriage. He argued that state's law conflicted with the equal protection and due process guarantees under the U.S. Constitution.

Carl Tobias, a constitutional law professor at the University of Richmond, said that federal district judges striking at state bans "looks like a trend" that, ironically, is kicking into gear in the generally conservative states of Utah and Oklahoma.

"It seems to be moving much more quickly than people thought," said Tobias.

In his ruling Tuesday, Kern brought up both the high court's decision (United States v. Windsor) and Shelby's ruling, which he noted was about a case "nearly identical" to the one in Oklahoma.

At least 1,000 marriage licenses were issued for gay and lesbian couples in Utah between the time Shelby made his ruling and the U.S. Supreme Court issued its stay Monday, pending appeals. The federal government said it will recognize those marriages, while the state of Utah said it would not.

Kern's decision -- citing what happened in Utah -- to issue an immediate stay of his own decision means no gay or lesbian couples in Oklahoma will be in limbo as the case likely moves forward in the federal courts.

His ruling Tuesday is not a total victory for the Oklahoma couples. The judge didn't rule in support of their argument challenging Section 2 of the Defense of Marriage Act asserting that states shall not "be required" to accept same-sex marriages performed in other states. Nor does it provide any "other relief," such as possible monetary damages, as they'd sought.

Still, Kern does say, "The Barton couple and their counsel are commended for their foresight, courage, and perseverance."

And he is clear in delivering the plaintiffs their biggest victory, regarding their chief focus in the Oklahoma state constitution.

"Part A," Kern writes, "intentionally discriminates against same-sex couples desiring an Oklahoma marriage license without a legally sufficient justification."

So what happens next?

Tobias noted that Utah and Oklahoma appeals could be heard together, because they're similar and both in the Tenth Circuit. Unlike the solitary district judges, such appeals are done by a panel of three judges whose mission is to decide whether or not the lower court erred in its decision.

Eventually, the Supreme Court -- even though it has notably steered clear of ruling on state-by-state variations -- could weigh in, settling the matter of whether states can ban same-sex marriage once and for all. That is a prospect few might have anticipated prior to last summer's Windsor ruling, though there's no telling how the divided court might come down.

In the Windsor case, the Supreme Court struck down a key part of the Defense of Marriage Act, which denied legally married same-sex couples the same federal benefits provided to heterosexual spouses.

"Windsor really might have been the tipping point," Tobias said. "But we'll see."

CNN's Mayra Cuevas and Bill Mears contributed to this report.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
Same-sex marriage debate
updated 10:54 AM EDT, Fri March 28, 2014
The federal government will recognize gay marriages in Michigan that occurred between recent conflicting court rulings, Attorney General Eric Holder announced.
updated 8:37 AM EST, Thu February 27, 2014
A federal judge struck down Texas' same-sex marriage ban, thanks to a sweeping decision holding that its current prohibition has no "legitimate governmental purpose."
updated 5:46 PM EST, Thu February 27, 2014
Arizona's divisive SB1026 -- which supporters claim protected religious freedom, and critics say served as cover for businesses to discriminate against gays and lesbians -- didn't come from nowhere.
updated 12:24 AM EST, Fri February 14, 2014
A federal judge in Virginia has struck down the commonwealth's ban on same-sex marriage as unconstitutional, according to court documents.
updated 4:23 PM EST, Wed February 12, 2014
gay couple health insurance jeff jones and Nate Walker
A federal judge ruled that Kentucky's denial of recognition for same-sex marriages violates the U.S. Constitution's guarantee of equal protection under the law.
updated 2:46 PM EDT, Fri August 2, 2013
Legally married same-sex spouses seeking U.S. visas will now be treated the same as opposite-sex spouses, Secretary of State John Kerry announced.
updated 9:45 AM EDT, Thu August 1, 2013
They've been a couple for two years and are eager to raise two children together. But it wasn't until Thursday that Holli Bartelt and Amy Petrich were allowed to legally wed.
updated 8:26 AM EDT, Thu June 27, 2013
The Supreme Court has struck down a key part of congressional law that denies to legally married same-sex couples the same benefits provided to heterosexual spouses.
updated 8:27 AM EDT, Thu June 27, 2013
The ruling permits same-sex couples in California to legally marry.
updated 9:31 AM EDT, Thu June 27, 2013
More than 50 years ago, military brass sat down the couple who'd become Susan Green's parents.
updated 8:04 AM EDT, Thu June 27, 2013
Thousands of same-sex couples across the U.S. were thrilled by the rulings. But in 37 states, some same-sex couples weren't as happy as they'd hoped to be.
updated 3:31 PM EDT, Sat June 29, 2013
A Hollywood genius might have been hard-pressed to produce a more perfect ending to Melanie Servetas' story.
Find out which states match your values when it comes to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights.
updated 12:05 PM EDT, Tue April 15, 2014
Here's a look at what you need to know about same-sex marriage in the U.S. and worldwide.
updated 3:39 PM EDT, Thu August 29, 2013
Same-sex marriage is in the spotlight on the national legal and political stages. Read what's behind the two landmark cases.
Which states allow same-sex marriage, and which states don't?
updated 8:18 PM EDT, Tue June 25, 2013
11-year-old Kevin thought it would be neat if daddy and papa tied the knot on the same day the couple met 15-years earlier on a softball field.
updated 10:58 AM EST, Sat January 19, 2013
Gail Dosik walked into a party, hung up her coat and fell in love; 26 years later, she was finally able to make the beautiful stranger she met that night her legally wedded wife.
updated 4:21 PM EDT, Thu June 7, 2012
On her wedding day, Jessica Port wore a tan and black dress to match the tan button-down shirt and patterned necktie of her spouse-to-be, Virginia Anne Cowan.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT