A U.S. judge on Wednesday ordered South Carolina officials to stop enforcing a ban on same-sex marriage, ruling the state is bound by a regional federal appeals court decision that struck down Virginia's ban.
U.S. District Judge Richard Gergel in Charleston, South Carolina, said his decision will not take effect for one week to allow the state time to appeal. That could allow gays and lesbians to file for marriage in the state starting at noon EST on Nov. 20, depending on the legal process.
In his ruling, Gergel said he found no meaningful distinction between South Carolina's ban on same-sex marriage and the ban declared unconstitutional in Virginia, adding that the state's ban violated the Constitution's due process and equal protection clauses.
South Carolina is the only one of five states covered by the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals that has refused to permit gays to marry despite action by the U.S. Supreme Court. The top court's decision in October allowed same-sex marriage to proceed in five new states and paved the way for bans against such unions to fall in others.
The earlier decision in Virginia set precedent for South Carolina and "establishes, without question, the right of plaintiffs to marry as same-sex partners," Gergel said.
The case before Gergel was brought by a lesbian couple whose efforts to get a marriage license in Charleston last month were blocked by the South Carolina Supreme Court.
A judge had told Charleston County Councilwoman Colleen Condon and her fiancée Nichols Bleckley that he would issue their marriage license after a mandatory 24-hour waiting period. But state Attorney General Alan Wilson asked the state's Supreme Court to block the license in light of South Carolina's voter-approved ban.
Condon and Bleckley could not be immediately reached for comment on the ruling. Representatives for Wilson also did not immediately reply to a request seeking comment.
(Reporting by Harriet McLeod; Writing by Colleen Jenkins; Editing by Susan Heavey)