By Steve Barnes


LITTLE ROCK, Arkansas (Reuters) - An Arkansas state judge struck down the state's ban on same-sex marriage on Friday saying it violates equal protection provisions of the U.S. Constitution, with the ruling adding to the momentum of expanding marriage rights for same-sex couples.

"Arkansas's marriage laws discriminate against same-sex couples in violation of the Equal Protection Clause because they do not advance any conceivable legitimate state interest necessary to support even a rational basis review," Pulaski County Circuit Judge Chris Piazza wrote in a 13-page finding filed on Friday.

The judge did not issue a stay of the decision, opening the door for same-sex couples to apply for marriage licenses.

"I'm thrilled. It's long overdue and I'm just real proud of Arkansas. And I hope there's no backlash on it." said John Rankine, 59, an artist from Eureka Springs who was a plaintiff in the suit.

The ban, approved overwhelmingly by Arkansas voters in 2004 as Amendment 83 to the state constitution, defined marriage as solely between a man and a woman. It also denies legal recognition of same-sex marriages performed legally in other states.

Seventeen states plus the District of Columbia allow same-sex couples to marry. That number would increase sharply if federal court rulings striking down bans in several states are upheld on appeal.

(Reporting by Steve Barnes; Writing by Jon Herskovitz; Editing by Cynthia Johnston and Chris Reese)

[Image: "Lesbian couple at gay pride parade," by lev radin via Shutterstock]