HOUSTON — A federal judge in deeply conservative Texas overturned the state's ban on same-sex marriage Wednesday, saying the prohibition is unconstitutional and stigmatizes gay couples, a ruling that gay rights advocates say adds significant momentum to their push for the U.S. Supreme Court to take up the issue.
Texas is the largest state and one of several conservative states, including Oklahoma and Virginia, where judges have recently struck down bans on same-sex marriage. In Texas and elsewhere, judges have stayed their rulings pending appeals, meaning that same-sex couples will not be legally exchanging vows any time soon.
U.S. District Judge Orlando Garcia in San Antonio wrote that the Texas ban, including a constitutional amendment that defines marriage as between one man and one woman, deprives same-sex couples of due process and equal protection, stigmatizing and treating them differently from other couples.
"Today's court decision is not made in defiance of the great people of Texas or the Texas Legislature, but in compliance with the U.S. Constitution and Supreme Court precedent," Garcia wrote.
The two couples who filed the lawsuit claimed a victory.
"This was the first time I ever had a court in an official capacity say I'm equal to everyone else," said Mark Phariss, 54, a corporate lawyer who lives outside Dallas. "It's not just a great day for us; it's a great day for everyone in Texas."
Phariss and his partner of about 17 years, Victor Holmes, 44, a physician's assistant, were in San Antonio for the ruling along with the other couple who filed the lawsuit, Nicole Dimetman, an entrepreneur and marketing consultant, and Cleopatra DeLeon, a biostatistician.
Dimetman and DeLeon, of Austin, have a 20-month-old son and want him to see that his parents are treated equally.
"We're very committed to this cause, and we're going to continue until we have no more avenues to appeal," Dimetman said.
Texas Atty. Gen. Greg Abbott, a Republican campaigning for governor, immediately announced plans to appeal the decision to the U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans.
"The ultimate decision about Texas law will be made by the Court of Appeals or the U.S. Supreme Court," Abbott said, noting that the Supreme Court has repeatedly ruled in favor of states defining and regulating marriage.
"If the 5th Circuit honors those precedents, then today's decision should be overturned and the Texas Constitution will be upheld," Abbott said, referencing the 2005 state constitutional amendment that followed a similar 2003 state law.
Gov. Rick Perry, an outspoken opponent of same-sex marriage, also released a statement criticizing Wednesday's ruling.
"It is not the role of the federal government to overturn the will of our citizens," Perry said.
Perry, a Republican, called the ruling "yet another attempt to achieve via the courts what couldn't be achieved at the ballot box. We will continue to fight for the rights of Texans to self-determine the laws of our state."
Other same-sex marriage opponents were optimistic that the state will win a reversal from the conservative 5th Circuit Court.
"The 5th Circuit certainly will get this right," said Jonathan Saenz, president of the Austin-based advocacy group Texas Values. "They have a habit of correcting federal court judges from Texas that so clearly make decisions that go against established precedent."
Saenz said the state's attorneys did a "fantastic job" of defending the ban, and blamed the decision on Garcia being "an activist judge who seemed to be looking for this outcome from the beginning."
Currently, 17 states and the District of Columbia allow same-sex marriages.
The number of cases challenging state bans began increasing last year after the Supreme Court struck down portions of the federal Defense of Marriage Act. Judges have ruled that prohibitions on same-sex marriage are unconstitutional in Kentucky, Ohio, Oklahoma, Utah and Virginia. Other states have overturned the bans by popular vote, including Maine, Maryland and Washington.
Lawyers who represented the same-sex couples in Texas said they did not coordinate with those championing similar cases in other states. But leaders of the national marriage equality movement who have coordinated cases in the past called the Texas judge's decision a strategic victory given Perry and other leaders' opposition and the conservative appeals court.
Opponents of same-sex marriage have mobilized nationally to counter the efforts.
"We've seen a rash of these rulings in recent weeks, all making the same errors about binding Supreme Court precedents relevant to marriage and all issued by activist judges bound and determined to redefine marriage," Brian Brown, president of the National Organization for Marriage, said in a statement Wednesday.
Should the 5th Circuit uphold the ban, gay marriage advocates say it will not necessarily be a setback. Three federal appeals courts in California, Colorado and Ohio will soon take up the issue.
If more liberal appeals courts overturn bans in other states, "then you'll have a split in the appeals courts which will make it more likely the Supreme Court will take up the case," said Jon Davidson, Los Angeles-based national legal director for the gay rights group Lambda Legal.Copyright © 2015, CT Now