By Tim Ghianni
(Reuters) - A U.S. judge ordered Kentucky on Thursday to recognize the legal same-sex marriages of residents who wed elsewhere, the latest in a string of court victories for gay rights advocates.
U.S. District Judge John G. Heyburn II said the Kentucky laws that deny the marriages of same-sex couples "violate the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment of the United States Constitution, and they are void and unenforceable."
The decision makes official a ruling he made on February 12 to strike down the laws. [ID:nL2N0LH1VR]
The ruling comes amid growing momentum for legalization of gay marriage across the country, with federal judges striking down restrictions on same-sex matrimony in several states, including New Mexico, Utah, Virginia and Texas.
Seventeen U.S. states and the District of Columbia recognize gay marriage, and the trend has gained pace since the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in June that legally married same-sex couples nationwide are eligible for federal benefits.
"After many years of representing gay and lesbian clients, it (the ruling) moves Kentucky in the direction of many other states. And it's in line with the other federal court rulings on this issue," said Bryan Gatewood, a prominent Louisville attorney.
Kentucky Attorney General Jack Conway said he had 30 days to file an appeal and would discuss with Democratic Governor Steve Beshear whether or not to go ahead with one.
Four Kentucky same-sex couples married out of state had challenged state laws that declared such marriages void and the attendant rights unenforceable. The couples, who were legally wed in Iowa, California, Connecticut and Canada, did not challenge a state constitutional ban on same-sex marriage.
Kentucky had argued states have the right to define what they see as legal marriage.
The decision in Kentucky comes a day after a federal judge ruled a Texas law banning same-sex marriage was unconstitutional but declared a stay on the decision, meaning that the ban stays in effect.
The suit in Texas was aimed at winning recognition for same-sex marriage in the deep South, where every state has a constitutional amendment or law that establishes legal marriage as only being between one man and one woman.
Support for gay marriage has surged in the United States in the decade since it first became legal in Massachusetts, with just over half of Americans now supporting the idea, according to a survey released on Wednesday.
(Additional reporting and writing by Jon Herskovitz; Editing by Scott Malone and Mohammad Zargham)