(Reuters) - A federal judge struck down Utah's ban on same-sex marriage as unconstitutional on Friday, handing a victory to gay rights activists in a conservative state where the Mormon church wields considerable influence.
U.S. District Judge Robert Shelby, ruling on a lawsuit brought by three gay couples, ruled that an amendment to the Utah Constitution defining marriage as exclusively between a man and a woman violated the rights of gay couples to due process and equal protection under the U.S. Constitution.
"The state's current laws deny its gay and lesbian citizens their fundamental right to marry and, in doing so, demean the dignity of these same sex couples for no rational reason. Accordingly, the court finds that these laws are unconstitutional," the ruling said.
The ruling could pave the way for Utah to become the 18th U.S. state to allow gay marriage, but lawyers for the plaintiffs cautioned that they expect the state to appeal.
Still, the Utah decision adds to growing momentum on gay marriage across the United States.
On Thursday, the New Mexico Supreme Court ruled to allow same-sex marriage across that state, ending legal ambiguity on the issue there. Last month, the governors of Hawaii and Illinois both signed bills to legalize same-sex weddings.
In issuing an order barring Utah from enforcing its ban on gay marriage, the court rejected arguments by the state that Utah had the right to define marriage free of interference from the federal government.
The state had also argued that history and tradition have not recognized a right to marry a person of the same sex, and that Utah's law did not infringe on the right of the plaintiffs because they could still wed someone of the opposite sex.
"The court agrees with Utah that regulation of marriage has traditionally been the province of the states, and remains so today," Shelby wrote in his 53-page opinion. But he said any state regulations must still comply with the U.S. Constitution.
The three couples who sued to overturn Utah's same-sex marriage ban all live in Utah. One couple in the lawsuit, Karen Archer and Kate Call, were married in Iowa, which allows gay marriage, but want their union to be recognized in Utah.
The other two couples were each denied a marriage license by the Salt Lake County Clerk's Office, according to court papers.
"It feels unreal," plaintiff Moudi Sbeity, who sued along with partner Derek Kitchen, told the Salt Lake Tribune newspaper after Shelby's ruling. "I'm just very thrilled that Derek and I will be able to get married soon, if all goes well and the state doesn't appeal."
PLAINTIFFS LAWYER EXPECTS APPEAL
Attorney Peggy Tomsic, who represented plaintiffs in the case, told the newspaper that the decision could provide precedent to legalize gay marriage in other states. But she said she expected the state to appeal.
Representatives for the Utah Attorney General's Office and Governor Gary Herbert could not immediately be reached for comment.
Lawmakers in Utah, home to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, had passed laws to prohibit gay marriage, and voters in 2004 approved an amendment to the state constitution to restrict the union to only between a man and a woman.
The Mormon church, which has softened its stance on homosexuality in recent years, saying the origins of sexuality are not fully understood, was not a party to the lawsuit but wields considerable influence in the state.
"The Church has been consistent in its support of traditional marriage while teaching that all people should be treated with respect," a church spokesman said.
"We continue to believe that voters in Utah did the right thing by providing clear direction in the state constitution that marriage should be between a man and a woman and we are hopeful that this view will be validated by a higher court," he added.
The church has previously endorsed Utah laws to protect LGBT people from job and housing discrimination and in 2010 denounced gay bullying.
Polls have shown increasing public support for gay marriage, and civil rights groups have prevailed at a number of courthouses and in an increasing number of state legislatures. Ten years ago, no U.S. states permitted gay marriage.
(Reporting by Alex Dobuzinskis and Dan Whitcomb; Writing by Dan Whitcomb; editing by Cynthia Johnston, Leslie Gevirtz and David Gregorio)