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U.S. court strikes down Kentucky same-sex marriage ban

(Reuters) - A federal judge on Tuesday struck down a ban on same-sex marriage in Kentucky as a violation of the U.S. Constitution, the latest in a string of court rulings across the United States voiding state laws that restrict the right to marry.

U.S. District Judge John Heyburn in Louisville, Kentucky wrote in his ruling that "same-sex couples' right to marry seems to be a uniquely 'free' constitutional right."

Heyburn said that to the extent Kentucky law denied same-sex couples the right to marry in that state, it violated the equal protection clause of the U.S. Constitution's 14th Amendment.

The judge put enforcement of his decision on hold pending further orders from the federal appeals court in Cincinnati, which handles appeals from his court.

Last year, the U.S. Supreme Court struck part of the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) that defined marriage as between a man and a woman for the purposes of federal benefits. And the high court let stand a lower-court ruling in California that found a gay marriage ban there unconstitutional.

Since then, every federal court to consider state bans on same-sex marriage and recognition has declared them unconstitutional, which was noted in Tuesday's ruling. Federal judges have struck down restrictions on same-sex matrimony in states that include New Mexico, Utah, Virginia and Texas.

On June 25, a panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit in Denver ruled that Utah could not ban same-sex couples from marrying. The decision prompted county officials in two other states to start issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples, setting up fresh legal challenges to state bans in Missouri and Colorado.

Heyburn, the Kentucky judge, said in his ruling that upholding equal rights for same-sex couples does not "diminish the freedom of others to any degree." He said there is an "utter lack of logical relation" between excluding same-sex couples from marriage and any legitimate state interest.

"In America even sincere and long-held religious views do not trump the constitutional rights of those who happen to have been out-voted," Heyburn wrote.

In February, Heyburn issued an opinion that said marriages performed in other states had to be recognized in Kentucky. The Kentucky case deals with claims brought by two same-sex couples from Louisville, Kentucky who were denied marriage licenses in Jefferson County, Kentucky.

One couple, Timothy Love and Lawrence Ysunza, have lived together for 34 years. The other, Maurice Blanchard and Dominique James, have been together for 10 years, according to court documents.

The couples said that because they are not allowed to marry, they have not been able to participate in legal and medical decisions for their partners; enjoy certain tax benefits; take time off work under the Family and Medical Leave Act, or adopt children as a married couple.

(Reporting by Daniel Wallis and Carey Gillam; Editing by James Dalgleish and Grant McCool)

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