By Teresa Carson
EUGENE, Oregon (Reuters) - Lawyers for four same-sex couples challenging Oregon's prohibition on gay marriage appeared before a federal judge on Wednesday to argue their case, even as the state declined to defend the ban.
Oregon's attorney general declined to defend the state's constitutional amendment approved by voters in 2004 that defined marriage as a union exclusively between a man and a woman.
The judge was not expected to rule immediately.
Officials from several other states, including California, Nevada and Virginia, have likewise refused to defend such laws in court as gay marriage proponents make legal headway across the country.
Marriage rights have been extended to gay couples in 17 states and the District of Columbia in a trend that has gained momentum since the U.S. Supreme Court ruled last June that legally married same-sex couples nationwide are eligible for federal benefits.
That decision, which struck down part of the 1996 federal Defense of Marriage Act, has been cited by a number of federal judges in subsequent opinions overturning state bans on gay matrimony.
"As creative as state attorneys can be, and we can be very creative, we could not come up with a justification" for maintaining a prohibition on gay marriage, special Assistant Attorney General Mary Williams told a 90-minute hearing in a packed Eugene courtroom.
U.S. District Judge Michael McShane asked several of the attorneys present whether they thought it was appropriate to tell Oregon voters, "You wasted your time."
Sheila Potter, deputy chief trial counsel for the state, replied, "We're asking you to say people don't get to vote on other people's rights."
Attorney Misha Isaak, representing some of the plaintiffs, said Oregon's marriage laws place a stigma on gay couples and their children and make them feel that "their relationships are unworthy of equal recognition."
"This is a state-imposed badge of inferiority," he said.
Although opponents of gay marriage had no one to argue their case on Wednesday, the National Organization for Marriage has filed a brief seeking to defend the ballot measure in court. A May 14 hearing is scheduled to decide if the group has legal standing to intervene.
(Reporting by Teresa Carson; Writing by Steve Gorman; Editing by Cynthia Johnston and Lisa Shumaker)