Democratic Congressman John Yarmuth is predicting the end of Kentucky’s gay marriage ban now that a federal judge has ruled a key provision unconstitutional.
The decision by Judge John G. Heyburn II found the state law violates the U.S. Constitution’s equal protection clause by denying recognition of same-sex marriages performed outside the state.
Heyburn was not asked by the plaintiffs whether Kentucky must issue marriage licenses to gay couples, but his ruling has provided ammunition for gay rights supporters.
In the 23-page decision, Heyburn said the constitutional amendment banning same-sex unions “demeans” gay and lesbian individuals and called the state law unconstitutional.
“Practically speaking, I think this is the end of the ban on gay marriage in Kentucky,” says Yarmuth, who is the lone Democrat in the state’s federal delegation.
“Assuming Judge Heyburn’s ruling withstands any potential appeal I think it would make the constitutional amendment relatively moot. If you can’t get married in the commonwealth that would not be an impediment to most people who could find a venue where they can get married.”
Opponents argued the decision undermines the will of voters who overwhelmingly opposed gay marriage in a state amendment a decade ago. A recent Bluegrass Poll shows 55 percent of Kentuckians still oppose it.
Republican Senator Mitch McConnell concurred with that sentiment in a statement to WFPL:
“The people of Kentucky voted overwhelmingly to enshrine in our Constitution that marriage in our state is between one man and one woman. I am a traditionalist and support that position, but regardless of one’s personal view on the issue, we should be able to agree that only the people of Kentucky, through the legislative process, should have the authority to change the law, not the courts. I will continue to support traditional marriage and fight to make sure that Kentuckians define marriage as we see fit and never have a definition forced on us by interests outside of our state.”
It’s unclear if the ruling will play a significant role in the 2014 elections either for federal office or state legislative seats.
From McConnell’s right, Republican Senate challenger Matt Bevin said he was “deeply disappointed” in the decision and called it an act of “judicial activism.” Liberal and conservative critics of the senator’s leadership have noted Heyburn was appointed to the federal judgeship at the recommendation of McConnell over two decades ago.
“It is no surprise that Judge Heyburn was Mitch McConnell’s general counsel and McConnell recommended him for the federal bench. Kentucky deserves better,” says Bevin.
The issue could be particularly troublesome for Kentucky Democrats, however. As the state remains steadfast in its opposition the rest of the country and federal court rulings are going in the other direction.
A campaign spokeswoman for Democratic Senate candidate Alison Lundergan Grimes sent the following statement:
“Alison has been married for seven years and has stated publicly that she wouldn’t want to deny other couples the opportunity to make that same commitment. She’s also made clear that while the Supreme Court has ruled that state sovereignty applies, churches should not be forced to recognize anything inconsistent with their teaching.”
Whether this case continues is up to another Kentucky Democrat seeking higher office. Attorney General Jack Conway is expected to run for governor in 2015, and it’s up to his office on whether the state will appeal Heyburn’s decision.
At last check, Conway’s spokesperson said his office was still reviewing the ruling.
“The attorney general is in a difficult spot,” says Yarmuth. “He does have an obligation to defend the laws of the commonwealth. One would think that he might feel an obligation to do that, but on the other hand I think it would be pretty much a waste of state resources to go through an appeal on something where now I think fate is pretty much established.”
Other members of Kentucky’s federal delegation have yet to respond to WFPL’s request for comment.