HELENA, Mont. (AP) — A federal judge on Wednesday overturned the state gay marriage ban in Montana, one of the last states to continue defending its ban despite rulings in favor of same-sex marriage from appeals courts that oversee them.
At least two counties — Missoula and Park — started issuing marriage licenses to gay couples soon after, while court clerks elsewhere in the state geared up to do so Thursday.
U.S. District Judge Brian Morris ruled Montana's constitutional amendment limiting marriage to a man and a woman violates the 14th Amendment's Equal Protection Clause.
"This Court recognizes that not everyone will celebrate this outcome," Morris wrote. "This decision overturns a Montana Constitutional amendment approved by the voters of Montana. Yet the United States Constitution exists to protect disfavored minorities from the will of the majority."
Montana's Republican attorney general, Tim Fox, vowed to appeal but said he wouldn't ask the state to block marriages in the meantime.
"It is the attorney general's sworn duty to uphold and defend Montana's constitution until such time as there is no further review or no appeal can be made in a court of law," Fox said in an email to The Associated Press.
Park County issued its first same-sex marriage license hours after the ruling. The couple plans to return to the county courthouse Thursday to be married by state district judge, Clerk of Court June Little said.
Among the first Montana couples to get their licenses were Amy Wagner, 56, and Karen Langebeck, 48, of Livingston who have been together for 22 years.
Wagner said they have been closely following the news about the issue. After hearing about the ruling at 2 p.m. Montana time, they got on the road to get their license. "Being able to get married and introduce Karen as my wife — that's a big deal. Now I have a way to describe this relationship that everybody understands," Wagner said.
The couple plan to return to Park County District Court on Thursday to get married by a judge.
At least one other gay couple got a license in Missoula County, Clerk of Court Shirley Faust said.
In Montana's most populous county, Yellowstone, the clerk of district court said she expects her office to start issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples Thursday morning.
"We're ready to go," Kristie Lee Boelter said. "For my office, nothing will be different than any other day."
Also Thursday, the ACLU plans celebrations at county courthouses in Billings, Bozeman, Butte, Great Falls, Helena and Missoula. The group will have officiants there for couples who wish to marry immediately, ACLU spokeswoman Amy Cannata said.
The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in September that Idaho and Nevada's bans are unconstitutional. Montana is part of the 9th Circuit, and Morris cited the appeals court's opinion in his ruling.
"The time has come for Montana to follow all the other states within the Ninth Circuit and recognize that laws that ban same-sex marriage violate the constitutional right of same-sex couples to equal protection of the laws," he wrote.
Four same-sex couples filed a lawsuit in May challenging Montana's ban. The plaintiffs included Angie and Tonya Rolando.
"Calling Tonya my partner, my significant other, my girlfriend, my perpetual fiancée has never done justice to our relationship," Angie Rolando said. "Love won today."
The couple said they plan obtain a wedding license as soon as their courthouse opens Thursday.
Another plaintiff, Chase Weinhandl, said he couldn't be happier about the ruling.
"It's a perfect clear day in Bozeman and an amazing day overall. This is awesome," he said.
Montana and two other states, Kansas and South Carolina, continued their legal fight against same-sex marriage despite rulings from federal appeals courts that oversee them that concluded gay and lesbian couples have the right to wed.
In South Carolina, a judge issued the first gay marriage licenses and a couple was wed Wednesday, even as the state attorney general asked the U.S. Supreme Court to step in and block the unions.
Before Wednesday, same-sex couples could marry in 32 states, parts of Kansas and Missouri, and the District of Columbia.
Montana Gov. Steve Bullock said in a statement he has instructed his administration to quickly take the appropriate steps to ensure legally married same-sex couples are recognized and afforded the same rights and responsibilities that married Montanans enjoy.
Voters in the state in 2004 approved a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage. Such bans have fallen around the country since the Supreme Court last year struck down part of the federal Defense of Marriage Act.
Republican Rep. Steve Daines was the sole member of the state's congressional delegation to express disappointment in the ruling, saying an "unelected federal judge" had ignored Montanans' wishes.
"I strongly believe in marriage as the union of one man and one woman and will continue working to defend the family," Daines said in a statement.
Associated Press writer Matthew Brown in Billings contributed to this report.