By Teresa Carson and Shelby Sebens
PORTLAND, Oregon (Reuters) - A federal judge struck down Oregon's ban on same-sex marriage on Monday, saying it violated the U.S. Constitution, as gay rights activists cheered the long-sought victory and counties across the state quickly began issuing marriage licenses.
The ruling came after Oregon's attorney general announced in February that she would not defend a 2004 voter-approved amendment to the state constitution that defined marriage exclusively as a union between a man and a woman.
"There is no legitimate state interest that would justify the denial of the full and equal recognition, attendant rights, benefits, protections, privileges, obligations, responsibilities and immunities of marriage to same-gender couples," U.S. District Judge Michael McShane said in his ruling in a lawsuit by four same-sex couples.
Officials in four Oregon counties said they began issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples minutes after McShane's ruling was made public, including in Portland where some couples had camped in front of a county building hoping to be among the first to wed once the ruling came down.
The scene at the Multnomah County Courthouse in Portland took on a festive atmosphere as couples including Shawna and Emily Roach, who brought along their 2-year-old daughter, lined up for licenses and passers-by honked car horns in support.
"Us being able to be legally married means she won't remember what it's like for discrimination to be legal," said Shawna Roach of their daughter.
Marriage rights have been extended to gay couples in 17 states and the District of Columbia in a trend that has gained momentum since the U.S. Supreme Court ruled last June that legally married same-sex couples nationwide are eligible for federal benefits.
That decision, which struck down part of the 1996 federal Defense of Marriage Act, has been cited by a number of federal judges in subsequent opinions overturning state bans on gay matrimony.
"I'm speechless. We've waited for this moment for at least 10 years," said Christine Tanner, who along with her partner was one of the four same-sex couples who sued to overturn the Oregon ban.
A clerk in southern Oregon's Jackson County said her office would begin handing out gender-neutral licenses by early afternoon and would waive a three-day wait time for a fee. Tiny Malheur County said it would also begin issuing licenses, as did the central county of Deschutes.
"No longer will Oregonians tolerate discrimination against the gay, lesbian, and transgender community," Oregon Governor John Kitzhaber said in a statement praising the ruling.
Brian Brown, a spokesman for the conservative National Organization for Marriage called McShane's ruling outrageous and said the group would ask the U.S. Supreme Court to stay the order pending appeal.
Earlier on Monday, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals refused a request by the group to halt the proceedings.
"(McShane) did this without anybody legally representing the people of Oregon; this is a perfect example of a lawless kangaroo court," Brown said.
(Reporting by Shelby Sebens and Teresa Carson in Portland, and Dan Whitcomb in Los Angeles; Writing by Dan Whitcomb; editing by Andrew Hay, Cynthia Osterman and Matthew Lewis)