By Kim Palmer
CLEVELAND (Reuters) - Ohio must recognize the marriages of same-sex couples wed legally outside the state, a federal judge ruled on Monday in the latest in a string of decisions supporting an expansion of gay rights.
District Judge Timothy Black in Cincinnati had said earlier in April he expected to enter a ruling striking down Ohio's ban on recognizing legal same-sex marriages as a violation of the U.S. Constitution.
Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine has said he planned to appeal the decision once it was handed down.
Black had previously entered narrower orders that required Ohio, which bans same-sex marriage, to allow two gay men to be listed as "spouse" on the death certificates of husbands they married outside Ohio.
The ruling on Monday does not address the ban on same-sex couples marrying within Ohio adopted in 2004.
Black said the court record was "staggeringly devoid of any legitimate justification for the state's ongoing arbitrary discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation ..."
The case was brought by three female same-sex couples expecting children conceived by anonymous donors within months and a male couple with an Ohio-born adopted son who want their birth certificates to reflect both parents. All were married legally in other states.
"Ohio's marriage recognition ban embodies an unequivocal, purposeful, and explicitly discriminatory classification, singling out same-sex couples alone, for disrespect of their out-of-state marriages and denial of their fundamental liberties," Black wrote.
Black stayed his decision to give the sides time to argue whether it should be stayed until an appeal is heard by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit. He said he would be inclined to stay the constitutional rulings, but not an order requiring Ohio to issue birth certificates naming both spouses.
Also on Monday, the Ohio attorney general's office approved the language of a possible ballot initiative supporters of same-sex marriage want to put to a vote. The initiative must undergo a state review and supporters must gather signatures.
Seventeen U.S. states and the District of Columbia allow same-sex couples to marry. That number would increase substantially if a spate of federal court rulings striking down bans in several states are upheld on appeal.
The push to legalize same-sex marriage has gained momentum since a U.S. Supreme Court ruling last year that legally wed gay couples are eligible for federal benefits.
(Additional reporting and writing by David Bailey in Minneapolis; Editing by Jonathan Oatis)