April 30, 2015 / 4:46 AM / 4 years ago

Kentucky federal judge who overturned state's gay marriage ban dies

April 29 (Reuters) - U.S. District Court Judge John G. Heyburn, whose ruling last year striking down Kentucky’s same-sex marriage ban prompted an appeal heard by the U.S. Supreme Court this week, died on Wednesday, the court said. He was 66.

Heyburn died at his Louisville home surrounded by family after a years-long battle with cancer, the U.S. District Court for Western Kentucky said in a statement.

Heyburn was appointed to the federal bench in 1992 by then-President George H. W. Bush, on the advice of U.S. Senator Mitch McConnell, the court said.

“Known for his searing intellect, fiercely competitive spirit, and quick wit, John Heyburn untangled countless legal knots and delivered sweeping legal opinions on cases of incredible complexity,” McConnell said in a statement.

Last July, 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. He also ruled that the state must recognize the legal same-sex marriages of residents who wed outside the state.

“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 his ruling.

The decisions were reversed on appeal, but landed before the U.S. Supreme Court, which heard arguments on Tuesday on bans in Kentucky and several other states that prohibit same-sex marriage. The justices appeared sharply divided on whether the Constitution guarantees a right to gay marriage.

Heyburn is survived by his wife, Martha, and two sons, the court said. (Reporting by Curtis Skinner in San Francisco)

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