- Associated Press - Friday, February 28, 2014

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) - Kentucky has until March 20 to implement an order granting legal recognition to same-sex couples married in other states or countries, a federal judge ruled Friday.

U.S. District Judge John G. Heyburn II ordered the 21-day delay after concluding that officials need time to study his findings and implement policies and procedures.

“The public interest is twofold: that the Constitution be upheld; and that changes in the law be implemented consistently without undue confusion,” Heyburn wrote in a three-page order. “Confusion could result from state or local officials being unaware of their precise responsibilities. However, the implementation of the order without confusion is possible with reasonable effort.”

The delay came one day after Heyburn issued an order making final his Feb. 12 opinion that Kentucky’s ban on recognizing same-sex marriages violated the Constitution’s equal-protection clause because it treated “gay and lesbian persons differently in a way that demeans them.”

The ruling arose from a lawsuit filed by two couples who were married in other states or countries over the past 10 years. The couples sought to force the state to recognize their unions as legal. Heyburn’s ruling does not require the state to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples; that is the subject of a separate, but related lawsuit. Heyburn expects to rule on that issue by summer.

Unless a higher court steps in and stops enforcement of the ruling, the state will have to allow same-sex couples married outside the state to change their names on official identifications and documents and obtain any other benefits of a married couple in Kentucky.

Dawn Elliott, an attorney for the couples who sued the state, didn’t quibble with the decision to delay implementation of the ruling.

“It’s definitely better than the longer time the state wanted,” Elliott said. “The reasons for doing it make sense.”

Gov. Steve Beshear said in a statement that with the final order entered and the stay issued, he and Attorney General Jack Conway will discuss what course to take.

“We will make a decision promptly,” Beshear said.

Kentucky sought to delay implementation of Heyburn’s ruling for up to 90 days and told Heyburn during a 30-minute conference call on Friday that time was needed to review the ruling and put new policies in place.

Assistant Attorney General Clay Barkley told Heyburn that the delay in implementation would not affect any decision on whether to appeal the ruling. Barkley said an appeal is still under consideration. The state has 30 days from when Heyburn handed down the final ruling to file a notice of appeal.

Laura Landenwich, an attorney for the plaintiffs, told the judge that any delay would harm couples eligible for recognition under the judge’s order. Landenwich pointed out that the state’s tax filing deadline is in the spring and the 90-day delay sought by the state would deprive her clients and others from being able to file jointly as a married couple.

“That’s real, tangible harm,” Landenwich said. “There’s going to be some glitches, no matter what.”

Martin Cothran, a spokesman for The Family Foundation of Kentucky, which opposes same-sex marriage, criticized Conway for not immediately appealing Heyburn’s ruling and seeking a stay while a higher court reviews the case.

“The Attorney General needs to fish or cut bait,” Cothran said. “And he needs to act now to protect the rights of Kentucky voters. Unelected federal judges like the judge in this case are taking important social issues out of the hands of voters and forcing citizens to be spectators in their own democracy.”

Clerks of court are awaiting direction from state officials on what to do next, said Nore Ghibaudy, a spokesman for the Jefferson County Clerk.

“Whatever it is, we’d have no problem doing it,” Ghibaudy said.

It was unclear how many people would seek to immediately take advantage of the rights recognized in the rulings.

“I imagine we’re talking about pretty small numbers,” Heyburn said.

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. In January, the U.S. Supreme Court put a hold on a decision in Utah recognizing same-sex marriages.

Heyburn noted that case differed from Kentucky’s because in Utah the state made it clear from the outset it intended to appeal any adverse ruling.

“Here, the state merely asks for reasonable time to implement the order,” Heyburn wrote.


Follow Associated Press reporter Brett Barrouquere on Twitter: https://twitter.com/BBarrouquereAP

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