Appeals court upholds decision voiding Oklahoma same-sex marriage ban

By Heide Brandes

Oklahoma City (Reuters) - A U.S. appeals court on Friday upheld a lower court decision voiding as unconstitutional Oklahoma's ban on same-sex marriage, drawing on a similar decision it made for Utah.

The decision by the three-judge panel of the Denver-based 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals is the latest in a series of rulings by judges in federal and state courts to find such exclusions violate the U.S. Constitution.

The appellate court last month upheld a decision that gay couples have a right to marry in Utah. Gay marriage is on hold in both Utah and Oklahoma while appeals are being resolved.

The Oklahoma lawsuit was brought in 2004 by two lesbian couples in long-term relationships. Both couples claim economic harms as a result of the Oklahoma law.

One of the couples, Mary Bishop and Sharon Baldwin, say their inability to marry under the law is "demeaning" and "signals to others that they should not respect our relationship," according to court documents.

Numerous lawsuits and rulings regarding same-sex marriage bans have followed the U.S. Supreme Court decision last year that struck down the federal Defense of Marriage Act. The Utah ruling was the first at the appellate level since the Supreme Court decision.

There are now 19 states, plus the District of Columbia, where same-sex marriage is legal. In another nine states, federal judges have struck down bans on same-sex marriage but the rulings have been put on hold pending appeal.

About 76 percent of Oklahoma voters approved the ban on gay marriage in 2004.

"Today's ruling is another instance of federal courts ignoring the will of the people and trampling on the right of states to govern themselves," said Governor Mary Fallin, a Republican, adding that the decision will be appealed.

Scott Hamilton, executive director of Cimarron Alliance, an Oklahoma gay rights group, disputed her reasoning, saying a majority in an earlier time supported slavery.

"The Supreme Court has clearly affirmed, and this ruling underscores, that when it comes to rights, privileges, and responsibilities, it is the Constitution - not the people - that prevails," Hamilton said.

A representative from Tulsa County, the defendant in the Oklahoma case, was not immediately available for comment.

(Reporting by Mary Wisniewski and Jonathan Stempel; additional reporting by Heide Brandes in Oklahoma; Editing by Bill Trott)