Arkansas must recognize as lawful some 500 same-sex marriages that were performed during a six-day window in May 2014, a state judge ruled on Tuesday.
The marriages have been in legal limbo since the Arkansas Supreme Court halted gay marriages less than a week after they began in order to hear the state's appeal. A lower court had ruled that the state's ban on same-sex marriage violated the equal protection clauses of the Arkansas and U.S. Constitutions.
The state subsequently refused to accept joint tax returns from same-sex couples who had wed and declined to enroll the spouses of gay and lesbian government employees in the state health insurance program.
"With shameless disrespect for fundamental fairness and equality, (the state) insists on treating the marriages of same-sex couples who received marriage licenses between May 9 and May 15 as 'void as a matter of law,'" Judge Wendell Griffen of Little Rock wrote.
His ruling directed the state to accept the tax filings and spousal health coverage applications of gay and lesbian married couples.
Arkansas Attorney General Leslie Rutledge, an opponent of same-sex marriage, said she would evaluate Griffen's order before deciding whether to appeal.
"These marriages do not fall within the state's definition of marriage as between one man and one woman," she said.
Tippi McCullough, president of the Arkansas Stonewall Democrats, a gay rights organization, said the group was "thrilled" by Griffen's ruling.
Griffen was among several state judges who officiated at the weddings of gay and lesbian couples before the higher court stayed the lower court's finding.
The state Supreme Court has yet to decide the matter. Some of its justices have complained that their colleagues are avoiding the issue in hopes that the U.S. Supreme Court will relieve them of any political fallout with its expected ruling on the issue later this month.
A federal district judge in Arkansas also struck down the state's prohibition on gay marriage, but the decision was stayed by an appellate court.
(Reporting by Steve Barnes; Writing by Jon Herskovitz in Austin, Texas; Editing by Mary Wisniewski, Sandra Maler and Peter Cooney)