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Same-sex couples challenge Wyoming's ban on gay marriage

By Eric M. Johnson

(Reuters) - Four same-sex couples filed a lawsuit on Wednesday challenging on constitutional grounds Wyoming's ban on gay marriage, a gay advocacy group said, following a recent string of court decisions striking down similar restrictions.

The couples argue the Western state's marriage restrictions and its refusal to recognize nuptials from other states violates guarantees of equal protection, according to a copy of the complaint provided by the National Center for Lesbian Rights.

The filing in a state court in Cheyenne could not immediately be confirmed in judicial records.

"As much as I love this state, it is frustrating to live in the 'Equality State' and to be treated differently by the government because of who I love," said plaintiff and University of Wyoming professor Anne Guzzo, referring to the state's nickname.

There is growing momentum for a legalization of gay marriage in the Western region and across the United States, with judges striking down restrictions in several states including New Mexico, Virginia and Texas.

The mood is reflected in polling, too, with support for gay marriage surging in the decade since it first became legal in Massachusetts. Just more than half of Americans now support the idea.

In all, 17 states plus the District of Columbia recognize same-sex marriage, including eight states where it became legal in 2013.

The trend has gathered steam since the U.S. Supreme Court in June ruled that legally married same-sex couples nationwide are eligible for federal benefits, striking down a key part of the 1996 federal Defense of Marriage Act.

The Wyoming suit comes a day after about 20 Western Republicans, including former U.S. senators Alan Simpson of Wyoming and Nancy Kassebaum of Kansas, urged a U.S. appeals court to rule state bans on gay marriage in Utah and Oklahoma unconstitutional.

Federal courts have ruled bans in those states were unconstitutional. Rulings by the appeals court, in Denver, could render gay marriage legal in states within the court's circuit - namely Colorado, Kansas, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Utah and Wyoming, although an opposing decision by the U.S. Supreme Court could bar them.

The Wyoming couples also include a major in the Army Reserve, a sheepherder, and an attorney and were joined by Wyoming Equality, the state's largest civil rights organization, the Center for Lesbian Rights said.

"The couples in this case, and all same-sex couples in Wyoming, deserve to be treated with equal fairness and respect, including having the same freedom to marry that others enjoy," said Wyoming Equality Executive Director Jeran Artery.

(Reporting by Eric M. Johnson in Seattle; Editing by Lisa Shumaker)

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