ST. LOUIS (AP) — A state judge overturned Missouri's constitutional ban on gay marriage Wednesday in a ruling that immediately set off a rush among some same-sex couples to apply for marriage licenses.
St. Louis Circuit Judge Rex Burlison said in a written ruling that Missouri's measure recognizing marriage only between a man and woman violates the due process and equal protection rights of the U.S. Constitution. The decision mirrored ones handed down recently in several other states.
Missouri Attorney General Chris Koster immediately appealed the ruling to the state Supreme Court, saying the constitutional challenge "must be presented to and resolved" at that level. But he said that his office wouldn't seek a stay of the order, noting that the U.S. Supreme Court refused to grant stays after same-sex marriage decisions in Idaho and Alaska.
Koster previously chose not to appeal a ruling requiring Missouri to recognize same-sex marriages performed in other states.
After hearing about Wednesday's ruling, Kelley Harris, 35, and Kelly Barnard, 36, drove to St. Louis City Hall to apply for a marriage license. They called a photographer to record the event and planned to invite friends to attend an impromptu ceremony at a local park. The couple had held an unofficial wedding ceremony in 2003.
"We've already been living as a married couple — we have children, we have family — so it would be nice to have the legal backing," said Harris, accompanied by her mother and the couple's suit-clad 4-year-old son and 6-year-old daughter.
By 5 p.m., the city had issued marriage licenses to four lesbian couples, including Harris and Barnard. April Breeden and Crystal Peairs, both 38, held a brief ceremony on the marble steps of the City Hall rotunda after obtaining their license.
"Time is of the essence," Peairs said. "We wanted to make sure we got it taken care of today."
The city issued four marriage licenses to same-sex couples in June and then quit doing so, intentionally setting up a legal challenge to the state's 2004 constitutional amendment banning gay marriage. Assistant Attorney General Jeremiah Morgan argued during a September court hearing that 71 percent of Missourians had voted for the referendum and said that the U.S. Supreme Court has repeatedly allowed states to define marriage.
St. Louis City Counselor Winston Calvert countered in court that the existing law treats same-sex couples as "second-class citizens." He said an increasing number of states are allowing gay couples to wed, including most of the states surrounding Missouri.
"Obviously this is a long time coming for so many gay and lesbian couples in the state of Missouri and the city of St. Louis in particular," Calvert said Wednesday as he and Mayor Francis Slay joined the four couples at the marriage license office.
Terry Garrett-Yampolsky, an archivist in the St. Louis recorder of deeds office, was part of the initial group of same-sex couples to receive licenses a little more than three months ago. He watched the couples enter the city office Wednesday with a mixture of pride and exhilaration.
"I'm overwhelmed," he said. "It's actually happening."
The decision may lead to same-sex marriage licenses being issued in other Missouri communities. Cheryl Dawson, the recorder of deeds for Greene County in southwest Missouri, said she received one phone inquiry about same-sex marriage licenses after the ruling. She said she told the caller that a state association hadn't yet told her how to handle such requests.
An official with the Recorders' Association of Missouri didn't immediately return a phone call late Wednesday afternoon.
A federal court case in Kansas City also challenges Missouri's gay marriage ban. Jackson County officials cited that case in a written statement late Wednesday noting that Burlison's ruling "is limited to St. Louis city."
The Missouri lawsuits mirror dozens of others across the country. The suits are based on the same arguments that led the U.S. Supreme Court last year to overturn part of the federal Defense of Marriage Act that denied a range of tax, health and veterans benefits to legally married gay couples.
Gay marriage is legal in 32 states and the District of Columbia.
Associated Press writers David A. Lieb and Heather Hollingsworth contributed to this report from Kansas City.