(CN) - Kentucky's refusal to recognize same-sex marriages performed in other states illegally violates the civil rights of married gay couples, a federal judge ruled.
U.S. District Judge John Heyburn in Louisville said Wednesday that the state's laws clearly "treat gay and lesbian persons differently in a way that demeans them."
Kentucky's ban violates the equal protection rights of the four same-sex couple plaintiffs, "even under the most deferential standard of review," according to the ruling.
"Though each faith, minister, and individual can define marriage for themselves, at issue here are laws that act outside that protected sphere," the 23-page opinion states. "Once the government defines marriage and attaches benefits to that definition, it must do so constitutionally. It cannot impose a traditional or faith-based limitation upon a public right without a sufficient justification for it."
The state failed to justify exclusion on procreation grounds with Heyburn saying that the exclusion "makes just as little sense as excluding post menopausal couples or infertile couples on procreation grounds."
"After all, Kentucky allows gay and lesbian individuals to adopt children," the opinion states. "And no one has offered evidence that same-sex couples would be any less capable of raising children or any less faithful in their marriage vows. Compare this with plaintiffs, who have not argued against the many merits of 'traditional marriage.' They argue only that they should be allowed to enjoy them also."
Heyburn said it is not his role to impose his "own political or policy judgments" on the state, nor to question the institution of marriage. Rather he aims to address the constitutional question of whether the state can deny same-sex spouses the recognition given to opposite-sex spouses.
"For those not trained in legal discourse, the questions may be less logical and more emotional," the opinion states. "They concern issues of faith, beliefs, and traditions."
Denying that his ruling creates new, unenumerated rights, Heyburn said equal protection rights are "not new."
The ruling highlights the U.S. Supreme Court's earlier rulings against a ban on interracial marriage in Virginia and laws criminalizing homosexual sex in Texas.
"History has already shown us that, while the Constitution itself does not change, our understanding of the meaning of its protections and structure evolves," Heyburn wrote. "Contrary to how it may seem, there is nothing sudden about this result. The body of constitutional jurisprudence that serves as its foundation has evolved gradually over the past forty-seven years."
The case did not require Heyburn to rule on whether Kentucky should allow same-sex marriages to be performed in the state, but he concluded "there is no doubt" his ruling and the U.S. Supreme Court's landmark ruling last year against the Defense of Marriage Act "suggest a possible result to that question."
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