- Associated Press - Wednesday, January 15, 2014

TULSA, Okla. (AP) - For the second time in a month, a federal judge has set aside a deeply conservative state’s limits on same-sex marriage, this time in Oklahoma.

U.S. District Judge Terence Kern on Tuesday struck down Oklahoma’s voter-approved ban, but headed off any rush to the altar by putting the effects of his ruling on hold while state and local officials complete an appeal.

Like the federal judge who reversed Utah’s gay marriage ban in December, Kern determined that Oklahoma’s constitutional amendment violated the U.S. Constitution’s equal protection clause. His ruling was littered with references to both the Utah ruling and those issued by the U.S. Supreme Court last summer.

Kern described Oklahoma’s ban on same-sex marriage as “an arbitrary, irrational exclusion of just one class of Oklahoma citizens from a governmental benefit.”

“Equal protection is at the very heart of our legal system and central to our consent to be governed,” Kern wrote. “It is not a scarce commodity to be meted out begrudgingly or in short portions. Therefore, the majority view in Oklahoma must give way to individual constitutional rights.”

The decision drew criticism from the governor, attorney general and other elected officials in this state, known as the buckle of the Bible Belt. A state lawmaker who once said gay people posed a greater threat to the nation than terrorism blasted rulings from “activist judges.”

Oklahoma’s ban on same-sex marriage is the third to be struck down by a federal judge, after California and Utah. State courts also ruled in favor of same-sex marriage in New Mexico in December and New Jersey in October.

Camilla Taylor, marriage project director at civil-rights organization Lambda Legal, said momentum has been increasing as litigators see that gay-rights groups are winning same-sex marriage cases. She said there are currently 43 gay marriage lawsuits in courts, and a new one is brought almost every week.

The Oklahoma ruling came in a lawsuit filed nearly a decade ago, by two same-sex couples.

“There’s so much emotion, I’m kind of crying right now,” said Mary Bishop, who hopes to marry partner Sharon Baldwin. “It’s overwhelming to think that we finally won.

Sharon and I want to get married here in Oklahoma. We’ve been together for more than 17 years - it’s time. This is something that when I was young, I thought I’d never see in my lifetime.”

Bishop and Baldwin, who work at the Tulsa World newspaper, filed the lawsuit with another same-sex couple in November 2004, shortly after voters approved the constitutional amendment. Their case was the longest-running challenge to the Defense of Marriage Act, according to the national gay marriage advocacy group Freedom to Marry.

“The Bishop couple has been in a loving, committed relationships for many years,” Kern wrote. “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.”

Taylor, with Lambda Legal, said she wasn’t sure why the judge’s ruling came now, though she noted that he made several references to the Utah case in his ruling.

In his 68-page ruling, Kern also took a shot at Oklahoma’s high divorce rate, noting that “excluding same-sex couples from marriage has done little to keep Oklahoma families together thus far.”

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