(CNN) — Arkansas became the latest state to have its ban on same-sex marriage overturned, after a state judge Friday declared the voter-approved measure to be unconstitutional.
Twenty-one gay and lesbian couples were part of a group of plaintiffs challenging Amendment 83 to the Arkansas constitution, saying it violated their federal and state rights of equal protection and privacy.
There was no indication from the court the decision would be temporarily put on hold pending appeal, leaving unclear whether some same-sex couples could begin getting married immediately. The state has the option of asking for a stay on enforcement, and the legal fight is now likely headed to the state supreme court.
“Our freedoms are often acquired slowly, but our country has evolved as a beacon of liberty in what is sometimes a dark world. These freedoms include a right to privacy,” said Pulaski County Circuit Judge Chris Piazza. “It is time to let that beacon of freedom shine brighter on all our brothers and sisters. We will be stronger for it.”
The ruling continues a near-unbroken string of state and federal court victories nationwide in the past year, giving marriage-equality supporters unbridled encouragement that their ultimate goal will be achieved: eliminating all laws limiting the rights of homosexuals to wed.
Seventeen states and the District of Columbia allow same-sex marriage within its borders: California, Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Illinois, Iowa, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, Rhode Island, Vermont, and Washington. Just a decade ago, there were none.
Friday also marks the two-year anniversary of President Barack Obama voicing his public support for the first time of same-sex marriage, citing his own “evolution” on the issue. “At a certain point, I’ve just concluded that for me personally it is important for me to go ahead and affirm that I think same-sex couples should be able to get married,” said Obama at the time.
Groups supporting same-sex marriage applauded the Arkansas ruling.
“Judge Piazza held that there is no good reason for discriminating against couples and their loved ones just because they are gay,” said Evan Wolfson, president of Freedom to Marry.
“With nearly 70 marriage cases now making their way through the courts, and five federal appellate courts now hearing arguments and soon to rule, today’s decision out of Arkansas underscores that all of America is ready for the freedom to marry.”
A federal appeals court last month heard challenges to same-sex marriage bans in Utah and Oklahoma. Appeals courts in coming weeks and months will hear similar challenges over current bans in Nevada, Texas, Kentucky, Ohio, and Michigan, including Virginia next Tuesday.
In June, the U.S. Supreme Court cleared the way for same-sex marriages in California to resume after it ruled private parties did not have “standing” to defend a voter-approved ballot measure barring gay and lesbian couples from state-sanctioned wedlock.
More importantly, the high court also rejected parts of the federal Defense of Marriage Act in its 5-4 “Windsor” decision, citing equal protection guarantees to conclude same-sex spouses legally married in a state may receive federal benefits such as tax breaks.
Judge Piazza cited the Windsor case in tossing out the Arkansas statute.
“The strength of our nation is in our freedom which includes, among others, freedom of expression, freedom of religion, the right to marry, the right to bear arms, the right to be free of unreasonable searches and seizures, the right of privacy, the right of due process and equal protection, and the right to vote regardless of race or sex,” he wrote.
The state’s attorney general, Dustin McDaniel, earlier this week said he personally backs the same-sex marriage right, but that his duties require him to defend the current ban in all court challenges.
The case is Wright v. State of Arkansas (60CV-13-2662).
By Bill Mears, CNN Supreme Court producer