November 26, 2014 / 1:15 AM / 3 years ago

U.S. judges overturn gay marriage bans in Arkansas, Mississippi

LITTLE ROCK, Ark./JACKSON, Miss. (Reuters) - U.S. district judges on Tuesday struck down as unconstitutional same-sex marriage bans in Arkansas and Mississippi, separately overturning measures that voters approved a decade ago in both socially conservative Southern states.

Judges Kristine Baker in Little Rock, Arkansas, and Carlton Reeves in Jackson, Mississippi, ruled that the bans on gay matrimony denied guarantees of equal protection under the law for gay couples.

The back-to-back decisions were the latest in a flurry of federal court rulings striking down measures across the United States defining marriage as exclusively between a man and a woman.

Both judges put enforcement of their rulings on hold in anticipation of appeals, meaning legal recognition of marriage for gay and lesbian couples was not imminent in either state.

Reeves said his ruling hinged on whether same-sex couples were capable of loving one another, being in committed relationships and being good parents, then rhetorically asked whether denying gays lesbians the right to marry subjected them to humiliation and “state-sanctioned prejudice.”

“Answering ‘Yes’ to each of these questions leads the court to the inescapable conclusion that same-sex couples should be allowed to share in the benefits, and burdens, for better or for worse, of marriage,” he wrote.

The bans in both states were challenged by gay couples seeking the same marriage rights as opposite-sex couples.

Mississippi Governor Phil Bryant, a Republican, said he expected the state to appeal against Reeves’ ruling, a spokesman said. Arkansas Attorney General Dustin McDaniel, a Democrat, likewise welcomed Baker’s stay pending appeal, a spokesman said.

The decisions come days after the U.S. Supreme Court lifted a temporary injunction to allow South Carolina to become the 35th U.S. state where gay marriage has become legal.

The trend has gained momentum since the Supreme Court ruled last June 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.

While gay marriage advocates have enjoyed the upper hand in the courts since then, the Cincinnati-based 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals this month became the first to rule the other way in upholding state bans on gay marriage.

That decision was seen as setting the stage for the Supreme Court to finally rule on the merits of gay marriage nationwide.

Additional reporting by Jon Herskovitz in Austin, Texas; Writing by Jonathan Kaminsky; Editing by Steve Gorman and Paul Tait

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