A federal judge, saying he was complying with the U.S. Constitution and not trying to defy the people of Texas, struck down the state's ban on gay marriage Wednesday but left it in place pending a ruling by an appeals court later this year.
Judge Orlando Garcia issued his ruling in Austin in response to a suit by two gay couples. They challenged the state's constitutional amendment, which had been approved by 76% of voters in 2005, and a 2003 law banning gay marriage.
Garcia's decision rejected the argument by the Texas attorney general's office that each state has the right to define marriage in the traditions of its citizens. Texas also argued that traditional marriage best supports the state's interest in procreation and child rearing.
"After careful consideration, and applying the law as it must, this court holds that Texas' prohibition on same-sex marriage conflicts with the United States Constitution's guarantees of equal protection and due process," Garcia wrote in a 48-page opinion. "Texas' current marriage laws deny homosexual couples the right to marry, and in doing so, demean their dignity for no legitimate reason."
He continued that regulation of marriage "has traditionally been the province of the states and remains so today," but "any state law involving marriage or any other protected interest must comply with the United States Constitution."
"Today's court decision is not made in defiance of the great people of Texas or the Texas Legislature, but in compliance with the United States Constitution and Supreme Court precedent," said Garcia, who was nominated to the federal bench by President Clinton in 1994. "Without a rational relation to a legitimate governmental purpose, state-imposed inequality can find no refuge in our United States Constitution."
Under federal court rules, a judge may suspend a law if he or she believes the plaintiffs have a strong case and will suffer if the law is enforced.
Gov. Rick Perry, a Republican, indicated the state would appeal. He issued a statement that Texas would "continue to fight for the rights of Texans to self-determine the laws of our state."
"Texans spoke loud and clear by overwhelmingly voting to define marriage as a union between a man and a woman in our constitution, and it is not the role of the federal government to overturn the will of our citizens," he said.
Nicole Dimetman and Cleopatra De Leon, one of the couples who filed suit, were wed in Massachusetts and want Texas to recognize their marriage. The other plaintiffs, Mark Phariss and Vic Holmes, have been together 17 years and want to get married at home in Texas.
"We are extremely happy — happy beyond words — with Judge Garcia's decision," Phariss and Holmes said Wednesday in a joint statement with Dimetman and De Leon, the San Antonio Express-News reported. "Today, Judge Garcia affirmed that the Equal Protection Clause applies to all Texans. We are delighted by that decision, and we expect that, if appealed, it will be upheld."
Dimetman and De Leon called the ruling "a great step towards justice for our family."
"Ultimately, the repeal of Texas' ban will mean that our son will never know how this denial of equal protections demeaned our family and belittled his parents' relationship," they said. "We look forward to the day when, surrounded by friends and family, we can renew our vows in our home state of Texas."
Michael Diviesti, state lead organizer of GetEQUAL TX, a gay rights group, said, "It's a sure sign that things are changing in Texas for the better. We've got a few more steps to go on the marriage front, but I think we're all pretty prepared to keep up the fight."
He added, "I wish we could start planning our weddings right now. Unfortunately, we can't, but now there is an end in sight. A lot of us were thinking it would take five to 10 years before we could get married in our home states. But seeing this happen in our state shows us that we're not as far away from that as we thought we were."
Cece Cox, CEO of Resource Center Dallas, a community services agency for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people, said, "Even though today nothing is exactly different, there are a lot of conversations that are going to be had about discrimination. And that's where a lot of progress is made — not just in the courts."
"This ruling by an unelected federal judge is the most egregious form of judicial activism in our generation," said Jonathan Saenz, president of Texas Values, an organization that promotes religious liberty. "This is only the beginning of an epic battle that the Texas people will ultimately win in the name of the only true and lawful definition of marriage: one man and one woman."
Federal judges also struck down bans on gay marriage in Utah, Oklahoma and Virginia, but the Texas ruling — if upheld on appeal — would have stronger reverberations coming from the nation's largest, most influential red state.
Lawsuits are pending in at least 20 other states that ban gay marriage, including Michigan, where a federal judge is currently hearing arguments about a constitutional amendment that limits marriage to heterosexuals.
Seventeen states and the District of Columbia allow same-sex marriages.
Wednesday evening, Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer vetoed a Republican-backed measure that would have allowed individuals and businesses to invoke their religious beliefs as a defense against claims of discrimination against gays.
Senate Bill 1062, which passed both houses of the Legislature last week, came under a withering assault from major corporations, organizations, politicians, professional sports and individuals.
Three of Brewer's fellow Republicans who voted for the measure also urged her to not sign the bill into law, saying that although its intent was "to create a shield for all citizens' religious liberties, the bill has been mischaracterized by its opponents as a sword for religious intolerance."
Contributing: Talia Richman