By Steve Barnes
LITTLE ROCK, Arkansas (Reuters) - An Arkansas state judge struck down the state's ban on same-sex marriage on Friday saying it violates equal protection provisions of the U.S. Constitution, a ruling that adds to the push to expand marriage rights for same-sex couples.
Pulaski County Circuit Judge Chris Piazza did not issue a stay of the decision, opening the door for same-sex couples to apply for marriage licenses.
"Arkansas's marriage laws discriminate against same-sex couples in violation of the Equal Protection Clause because they do not advance any conceivable legitimate state interest necessary to support even a rational basis review," Piazza wrote in a 13-page finding filed on Friday.
The state's attorney general intends to appeal and will ask for a stay "so as not to create confusion or uncertainty about the law while the Supreme Court considers the matter," spokesman Aaron Sadler said.
Seventeen states plus the District of Columbia allow same-sex couples to marry. That number would increase sharply if federal court rulings striking down bans in several states are upheld on appeal.
Judge Piazza wrote that the state's defense of the gay marriage ban was "eerily similar" to arguments made a half-century ago banning interracial marriage.
"The issue at hand is the fundamental right to marry being denied to an unpopular minority. Our judiciary has failed such groups in the past," Piazza wrote.
The ban, approved overwhelmingly by Arkansas voters in 2004 as Amendment 83 to the state constitution, defined marriage as solely between a man and a woman. It denies legal recognition of same-sex marriages performed legally in other states.
"I'm thrilled. It's long overdue and I'm just real proud of Arkansas. And I hope there's no backlash on it," said John Rankine, 59, an artist from Eureka Springs who was one of the plaintiffs in the suit.
The legal challenge was brought by 21 same-sex Arkansas couples who said the gay marriage prohibition violated their rights under both the U.S. and state constitutions.
The Family Council, a conservative education and research organization that pushed for the ban, said the judge was undermining the will of the people.
"This fight isn't over and I look forward to a more sensible ruling from the Arkansas Supreme Court," said Jerry Cox, the council's president.
(Reporting by Steve Barnes; Writing by Jon Herskovitz; Editing by Cynthia Johnston, Chris Reese and Andre Grenon)