Judge rules Missouri ban on gay marriage violates Constitution
Gay couple holding hands, wearing a wedding ring (Shutterstock)

A federal judge ruled on Friday that Missouri's ban on same-sex marriage violates the U.S. Constitution in a decision that would extend the right of gay couples to marry across the Midwestern state.

U.S. District Judge Ortrie Smith found that the Missouri ban ran afoul of the Constitution's guarantees of due process and equal protection under the law. But Smith delayed his ruling from going into effect immediately pending possible appeals.

Missouri Attorney General Chris Koster, a Democrat, quickly said the state would appeal.

Smith's ruling came one day after one of the nation's regional federal appeals courts, the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Cincinnati, upheld bans on gay marriage in four other states, setting up a possible review by the U.S. Supreme Court, which just last month declined a chance to take up the issue.

Several other U.S. District Court judges and U.S. appeals courts from around the United States also have thrown out state bans on same-sex marriage. Koster's appeal represents the first to the 8th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals on state bans on same-sex marriage.

Arkansas, Nebraska, North Dakota and South Dakota - all in the region handled by the 8th Circuit - have bans in place on gay marriage. Same-sex marriage is legal in Iowa under a state Supreme Court ruling and in Minnesota by state statute.

Smith found that Missouri lacked a compelling state interest to limit marriage to one man and one woman. Smith was ruling on a challenge to the state ban brought by the American Civil Liberties Union of Missouri on behalf of couple Angela Curtis and Shannon McGinty and another same-sex couple in Jackson County, which includes most of Kansas City, Missouri.

"Sharing this news will be almost as exciting as when we got engaged," Curtis said in a statement released by the ACLU.

McGinty said it was important to the couple to be able to marry before friends and family in the state where they live.

Tony Rothert, legal director of ACLU of Missouri, said in an interview he believes the ruling would allow Jackson County to issue same-sex marriage license pending the appeal.

A spokeswoman for Jackson County did not immediately return calls for comment on whether the county would issue licenses while the case is on appeal.

The ruling came two days after a Missouri state court judge ruled the state ban unconstitutional and said same-sex couples in St. Louis must be granted marriage licenses.

Koster appealed the state judge's order to the Missouri Supreme Court, but did not ask for a stay in St. Louis. At least 10 same-sex couples had sought marriage licenses in the city of St. Louis and St. Louis County by midmorning on Thursday.

Same-sex marriage is legal in 32 states, plus the District of Columbia, up from 19 states since the U.S. Supreme Court in October declined to review U.S. appeals court rulings that struck down bans on same sex marriage in several states.

(Reporting by Kevin Murphy; Writing by David Bailey; Editing by Will Dunham)