AUSTIN — A federal judge declared a same-sex marriage ban in deeply conservative Texas unconstitutional on Wednesday, but will allow the nation’s second-most populous state to enforce the law pending an appeal that will likely go to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Judge Orlando Garcia issued the preliminary injunction after two gay couples challenged a state constitutional amendment and a longstanding law.
His ruling, made in San Antonio, is the latest in a tangled web of lawsuits across the country expected to end up in the Supreme Court next year.
“Without a rational relation to a legitimate governmental purpose, state-imposed inequality can find no refuge in our United States Constitution,” Garcia wrote. “These Texas laws deny Plaintiffs access to the institution of marriage and its numerous rights, privileges, and responsibilities for the sole reason that Plaintiffs wish to be married to a person of the same sex.”
Garcia said the couples are likely to win their case and the ban should be lifted, but said he would not enforce his ruling pending one by the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals, which already is hearing two other states’ cases. He also will give Texas time to appeal to the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans.
Garcia, appointed by President Bill Clinton, is the first judge in the conservative 5th Circuit to reach such a decision. Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott, who also is the leading Republican candidate to succeed Gov. Rick Perry, promised to appeal the decision to the New Orleans court.
“This is an issue on which there are good, well-meaning people on both sides,” Abbott said in a statement. “The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled over and over again that States have the authority to define and regulate marriage.”
Abbott will likely ask the 5th Circuit to formally suspend Garcia’s ruling, but if that court fails to do so before the 10th Circuit rules, he could enforce his decision then.
U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder said this week that his state counterparts are not obligated to defend local laws banning same-sex marriage if they believe the laws violate the U.S. Constitution. Democratic attorneys general in at least six states — Virginia, Pennsylvania, California, Illinois, Oregon and Nevada — have declined to defend same-sex-marriage bans that have been challenged in court by gay couples.
Abbott’s likely Democratic opponent, Fort Worth state Sen. Wendy Davis, welcomed the ruling.
“I believe that all Texans who love one another and are committed to spending their lives together should be allowed to marry,” Davis said.
Texas is in the midst of primary election season and Republicans up and down the ticket deplored the court’s decision, while Democrats welcomed it.
The ruling is the latest in a series of victories for gay rights activists following similar decisions in Utah, Oklahoma and Virginia.
The U.S. Supreme Court put the Utah ruling on hold until the 10th Circuit can consider an appeal, and Garcia said he would respect that order as well.
Mark Phariss and Victor Holmes filed their federal civil rights lawsuit saying Texas’ ban unconstitutionally denied them the fundamental right to marry because of their sexual orientation.
Cleopatra De Leon and Nicole Dimetman filed a lawsuit saying Texas officials violated their rights by not recognizing their marriage conducted in a state where gay marriage is legal.
“Growing up with my mom and dad, I envied their marriage because I really didn’t think I’d have something like that,” Phariss said. “Reading that decision, it was the first time I realized, yes I can get married.”
Dimetman said she was thrilled with the judge’s decision and talked about growing up knowing that she was gay and worried that she would never get married.
Todd Staples, a candidate for lieutenant governor who drafted the constitutional amendment banning gay marriage, denounced the court’s decision.
“I am disappointed that judicial activism is once again trying to trump the will of the people. This ruling is the poster child of the culture war occurring in America today,” he said.
Another gay couple has filed a separate lawsuit in federal court in Austin. In that case, two men argue that the ban discriminates against them based on their gender. That case is scheduled for a hearing later this year.
Perry accused Garcia of disregarding the will of the people by overturning a voter-approved constitutional amendment.
“The 10th Amendment guarantees Texas voters the freedom to make these decisions, and this is yet another attempt to achieve via the courts what couldn’t be achieved at the ballot box,” Perry said.