(Reuters) - A federal judge struck down Montana’s ban on same-sex marriage as unconstitutional on Wednesday, handing gay rights advocates the latest in a wave of legal victories as the nation awaits a potential definitive ruling on the matter by the U.S. Supreme Court.
Montana is set to become the 34th state where gay marriage is legal. South Carolina then is due to become the 35th on Thursday unless the Supreme Court agrees to a long-shot plea from the state and blocks it.
In Great Falls, Montana, U.S. District Judge Brian Morris overturned a 2004 amendment to the state’s constitution prohibiting same-sex marriages in response to a lawsuit brought by the ACLU of Montana on behalf of four gay couples.
The Montana ruling was expected because the state is within the jurisdiction of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which has already struck down similar bans in Nevada and Idaho.
“The time has come for Montana to follow all the other states within the Ninth Circuit (judicial district) and recognize that laws that ban same-sex marriage violate the constitutional right of same-sex couples to equal protection laws,” Morris wrote in his 18-page ruling.
The judge barred Montana from enforcing its ban and said it must immediately recognize same-sex marriages from other states.
The decision marks the latest in a series of court victories by gay rights activists over the past year - although a Cincinnati-based federal appeals court on Nov. 6 became the first to uphold same-sex marriage bans.
That decision by the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals backing four states’ bans created a split within the courts, increasing the chances the Supreme Court will rule once and for all on whether states can ban gay marriage.
“Today’s decision ensures we are closer to fulfilling our promise of freedom, dignity and equality for all Montanans,” said Governor Steve Bullock, a Democrat.
Montana Attorney General Tim Fox, a Republican who defended the state’s gay marriage ban, said he would appeal the decision.
“It is the attorney general’s sworn duty to uphold and defend Montana’s constitution until such time as there is no further review or no appeal can be made in a court of law,” Fox said.
In South Carolina, a district court judge struck the ban down last week and said his ruling would go into effect on Thursday unless an appeals court or the Supreme Court blocked it.
Reporting by Dan Whitcomb in Los Angeles and Laura Zuckerman in Salmon, Idaho; additional reporting by Lawrence Hurley in Washington; Writing by Dan Whitcomb; Editing by Cynthia Johnston and Will Dunham