An Arkansas judge Friday invalidated the state's voter-approved ban on same-sex marriage, saying it violates the equal-protection clause of the U.S. Constitution.
"Although marriage is not expressly identified as a fundamental right in the Constitution, the United States Supreme Court has repeatedly recognized it as such," Pulaski County Circuit Judge Chris Piazza ruled in striking down the 2004 amendment to the state's constitution as well as a statute passed in 1997.
"This is an unconstitutional attempt to narrow the definition of equality," he wrote. "The exclusion of a minority for no rational reason is a dangerous precedent."
Voters overwhelmingly supported changing the constitution to define marriage as being only between a man and a woman.
Last week, state Attorney General Dustin McDaniel said he personally supported same-sex marriage but would defend the ban in court.
"We respect the Court's decision, but, in keeping with the Attorney General's obligation to defend the state constitution, we will appeal," said McDaniel's spokesman, Aaron Sadler. "We will request that Judge Piazza issue a stay of his ruling so as not to create confusion or uncertainty about the law while the Supreme Court considers the matter."
Piazza's ruling in Wright vs. Arkansas rests heavily on the landmark 1967 case Loving vs. Virginia, in which the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the state's ban on interracial marriage.
"It has been over forty years since Mildred Loving was given the right to marry the person of her choice. The hatred and fears have long since vanished and she and her husband lived full lives together; so it will be for the same-sex couples. It is time to let that beacon of freedom shine brighter on all our brothers and sisters," Piazza wrote. "We will be stronger for it."
Last year, the U.S. Supreme Court last year struck down a law forbidding the federal government from recognizing same-sex marriages. Since then, federal judges in Michigan, Oklahoma, Utah, Virginia and Texas have declared marriage bans unconstitutional. In addition, Kentucky, Ohio and Tennessee have been ordered to recognize same-sex marriages from other states.
The nation's biggest lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender organization praised Piazza's ruling as a "historic victory for Arkansas values."
"All across my home state, throughout the South, and around the country, LGBT people and their families are seeking basic respect and dignity," said Chad Griffin, president of the Human Rights Campaign and an Arkansas native. "This victory is an essential step on the journey toward full equality for all."
In 2004, Massachusetts became the first state to make same-sex marriages legal. Since then, 16 other states and the District of Columbia have followed suit, while 33 states restrict marriage to heterosexuals.
More than 70 lawsuits challenging marriage bans have been filed in 29 states and Puerto Rico, the Human Rights Campaign said.