By Doug Moore
Denying Missouri's gay couples the opportunity to marry is unconstitutional, a judge ruled Wednesday.
The ruling by St. Louis Circuit Judge Rex Burlison immediately prompted St. Louis to begin issuing marriage licenses. Likewise, St. Louis County said it would abide by the ruling, which advocates say applies statewide.
"The Court finds and declares that any same-sex couple that satisfies all the requirements for marriage under Missouri law, other than being of different sexes, is legally entitled to a marriage license," Burlison wrote.
He said the Missouri Constitution violated the equal protection and due process clauses of the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
Missouri Attorney General Chris Koster said he had appealed the ruling to the Missouri Supreme Court but had not asked for a stay.
Burlison's ruling comes more than four months after four couples were married at St. Louis City Hall despite a 10-year-old state constitutional amendment defining marriage as between one man and one woman.
The act of defiance, choreographed with the support of Mayor Francis Slay and Recorder of Deeds Sharon Carpenter, led Koster to file an injunction preventing more marriage licenses from being issued to same-sex couples.
Wednesday's ruling is the second major victory in the state for same-sex marriage. Last month, a Kansas City judge ruled that marriages of Missouri gay couples wed in states or countries where such relationships are legally recognized must be honored by their home state. The decision by Circuit Judge J. Dale Youngs was the first by any judge affirming same-sex marriage in Missouri. That ruling affected more than 5,400 Missouri couples.
In both cases, an attorney from Koster's office defended the state constitution. Koster supports same-sex marriage but said he had a legal responsibility to defend Missouri law. However, after losing the Kansas City case, Koster declined to appeal, saying the state was obligated to honor contracts entered into in other states.
"Missouri's future will be one of inclusion, not exclusion," Koster said at the time.
In Wednesday's case, Koster appealed the ruling to the Missouri Supreme Court, saying that the case "must be presented to and resolved by the state's highest court."
But in the meantime, Koster said he would not seek a stay. "Following decisions in Idaho and Alaska, the United States Supreme Court has refused to grant stays on identical facts," he said.
The prospect of an appeal did little to dampen the excitement associated with Burlison's ruling.
"This is a positive move forward for loving same-sex couples in the city of St. Louis," said Jeffrey Mittman, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Missouri. "It is also a win for families throughout Missouri as another discriminatory obstacle is lowered."
The ruling specifically grants the St. Louis Recorder of Deeds the authority to issue marriage licenses.
But some officials in other Missouri counties are seeking further direction.
Jim Doughty, the assistant recorder of deeds for St. Charles County, said no licenses would be issued there until further review from legal counsel.
The recorder of deeds in St. Louis County did not have any inquiries Wednesday; but Martina Price, a spokesman for the office, said the county was "certainly ready to comply with the law."
St. Louis City Counselor Winston Calvert said that issuing the four marriage licenses in June "pushed the envelope on behalf of families throughout the State of Missouri who now can enjoy the dignity, stability and security of a legal marriage."
In arguments before Burlison on Sept. 29, Calvert told the judge that marriage was a fundamental right of all citizens but that the constitutional amendment "categorically denies that right to an entire class of people."
The landscape of same-sex marriage has changed dramatically since June 2013. That's when the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a key part of the federal Defense of Marriage Act. That ruling allowed gay couples who live in states where their marriages are legally recognized to receive the same federal benefits as married heterosexual couples.
Then last month, the Supreme Court rejected appeals from five states seeking to preserve their bans. There are now 32 states plus the District of Columbia that issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples.
Marc Solomon, national campaign director for Freedom to Marry, said that Burlison's ruling "is very much consistent with the way judges have been ruling around the country since the Supreme Court took up the issue."
The ruling Wednesday marks 49 successful challenges to same-sex marriage laws across the country, compared with three losses, Solomon said.
"There has just been incredible momentum," he said.
On Wednesday afternoon, St. Louis Recorder of Deeds Jennifer Florida began issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples. Lilly Leyh and Sadie Pierce were first in line.
"Hi. I would like to buy a marriage," Pierce said to a cashier at the recorder's office.
Leyh and Pierce said they knew the judge had the case under consideration. When they heard about the ruling, they rushed to St. Louis City Hall to get a license. Leyh, 25, and Pierce, 27, met while studying at Washington University.
"We were really hoping this would happen," Leyh said.
The normally staid and quiet recorder's office took on a celebratory tone as more couples arrived late Wednesday afternoon. A banner reading "First in Marriage" and "#ShowMeMarriage" was hung on an office wall. Slay appeared alongside several other well-wishers to congratulate them.
"We acted because it was the right thing to do," said Slay, who has gay siblings. "Cities are strengthened by their families. I want St. Louis to be the sort of diverse and open place in which all families -- gay and straight -- choose to live, be creative, and build businesses."
In Missouri, according to the 2010 Census, there are 10,557 same-sex couples living together, and about 17 percent of those couples are rearing children together.
Tod Martin and David Gray were one of the four couples married in June.
"We are completely amazed, in awe and happy for those who have a chance to get married," said Martin, deputy chief of staff for U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill. "We are hoping that this will spread across the rest of the state."
Nicholas J.C. Pistor and Steve Giegerich of the Post-Dispatch contributed to this report.
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