A federal judge on Thursday signed an order directing officials in Kentucky to immediately recognize same-sex marriages performed in other states and countries.
U.S. District Judge John G. Heyburn II issued a final order throwing out part of the state's ban on gay marriages. It makes official his Feb. 12 ruling that Kentucky's ban on same-sex marriages treated "gay and lesbian persons differently in a way that demeans them."
Same-sex couples may change their names on official identifications and documents and obtain any other benefits of a married couple in Kentucky. The order doesn't affect a related lawsuit seeking to force the state to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples.
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The order came just hours after the Kentucky's attorney general asked for a 90-day delay. The two-page filing says the delay is sought to give that office time to decide whether to appeal the Feb. 12 ruling and would give the state an opportunity to prepare to implement the order.
Heyburn's final order did not mention the request for a stay and he had not ruled on it as of mid-afternoon Thursday.
Dawn Elliott, an attorney for one of the couples pursuing recognition of a marriage performed in Canada, praised the ruling.
"It's a great day to be from the commonwealth of Kentucky," Elliott said. "I hope that the attorney general and governor that I voted for don't jump on the appeal bandwagon."
The order means same-sex couples are allowed to change their names on official identifications and documents and obtain any other benefits of married couples in Kentucky. Heyburn's ruling doesn't affect a related lawsuit seeking to force the state to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples. Final briefings in the marriage license case are due to Heyburn by May 28.
It was unclear if or how many people would seek to immediately take advantage of the rights recognized in the rulings. Elliott and co-counsel Shannon Fauver said their clients were considering doing so Thursday afternoon but had not decided.
Nore Ghibaudy, a spokesman for the Jefferson County clerk, said until the state issues a directive notifying clerks of the legal change, no same-sex name changes or other legal documents will be issued.
"We have to follow the law until we hear otherwise," Ghibaudy said. "Whatever it is, we'd have no problem doing it."
Kentucky Attorney General Jack Conway said in a statement late Thursday afternoon that he was reviewing Heyburn's order.
"I have 30 days to determine whether or not to file an appeal in this case, which is why I asked Judge Heyburn for a stay of his order this morning," Conway's statement said. "I will be determining promptly, in consultation with Gov. (Steve) Beshear, whether or not to file an appeal in this case."
The decision in the socially conservative state comes against the backdrop of similar rulings or actions in other states where same-sex couples have long fought for the right to marry. Kentucky's constitutional ban was approved by voters in 2004 and included the out-of-state clause.
On Wednesday, a federal judge in Texas struck down that state's gay marriage ban but immediately delayed the implementation of his ruling pending appeals by the state.
The Kentucky ruling came in lawsuits brought by four gay and lesbian couples seeking to force the state to recognize their marriages performed outside Kentucky.
Martin Cothran, a senior policy analyst for the Family Foundation of Kentucky, criticized Conway's handling of the case, accusing him of "spiking" the state's defense by not making persuasive arguments to keep the ban in place.
"The Attorney General's office was clearly not intending to do its job. It only did what it was supposed to do after someone shed light on the fact that he was about to take one more action that favored those who are trying to disenfranchise Kentucky voters on the issue of marriage," Cothran said.
Laura Landenwich, an attorney representing several of the couples who sued, said now that marriages must be recognized, state employees will have to adjust to the ruling.
"It'll be interesting to see what happens," Landenwich said.
In his 23-page ruling issued Feb. 12, Heyburn concluded that the government may define marriage and attach benefits to it but cannot "impose a traditional or faith-based limitation" without sufficient justification.
"Assigning a religious or traditional rationale for a law does not make it constitutional when that law discriminates against a class of people without other reasons," wrote Heyburn, an appointee of President George H.W. Bush.