By Heide Brandes
OKLAHOMA CITY (Reuters) - A federal judge overturned Oklahoma's ban on same-sex marriage on Tuesday, the latest in a series of rulings by judges in federal and state courts to find that such exclusions violate the U.S. Constitution.
Same-sex couples will not be able to marry immediately in Oklahoma under the ruling by U.S. District Court Judge Terence Kern, who said his decision would be put on hold, pending an appeal of a nearly identical case in Utah.
"Equal protection is at the very heart of our legal system and central to our consent to be governed," Kern wrote in his decision. "It is not a scarce commodity to be meted out begrudgingly or in short portions. Therefore, the majority view in Oklahoma must give way to individual constitutional rights."
Seventeen U.S. states plus the District of Columbia now recognize same-sex marriage, and federal court rulings would add Utah and Oklahoma to that group if the decisions are upheld.
Even as an increasing number of U.S. states recognize gay marriage, 33 states ban such unions through state constitutional amendment, statute, or both. In Oklahoma, voters in 2004 approved a constitutional amendment defining marriage as between one man and one woman.
The challenge to Oklahoma's constitutional amendment was launched in 2004 by two lesbian couples in long-term relationships and has gone through a winding procedural history leading up to Tuesday's ruling.
Steve Spitz, 50, who owns a design and construction company in Oklahoma City, said the ruling brought him hope and, if it is upheld, could result in a wedding with his partner of 24 years.
"Gay equality is going to happen, whether it's five, 10 or 20 years from now," Spitz said. "All of our friends in Oklahoma - gay and straight - think gay marriage should be legal."
GOVERNOR TROUBLED BY RULING
Oklahoma Governor Mary Fallin, a Republican, said Oklahoma residents had spoken by adopting a state constitutional ban on gay marriage, and she supported the right of the voters to govern themselves.
"I am disappointed in the judge's ruling and troubled that the will of the people has once again been ignored by the federal government," Fallin said in a statement.
Scott Hamilton, executive director of the Cimmaron Alliance Equality Center, Oklahoma's LGBT advocacy organization, said a lot has changed in the decade since that vote.
"I think many Oklahomans now recognize that it's not right to discriminate against one group in the state," Hamilton said.
Little more than a decade ago, none of the 50 U.S. states recognized same-sex marriage. However, the trend over the past two years has been for same-sex marriage to become legal.
The U.S. Supreme Court last year struck down the Defense of Marriage Act, a federal law that denied federal benefits to legally married same-sex couples and paved the way for gay marriage in California.
Same-sex marriage became legal in eight states last year. Same-sex couples also could marry for a brief period in Utah after a federal judge overturned the heavily Mormon state's constitutional ban on same-sex unions.
The U.S. Supreme Court last week halted same-sex marriages in Utah pending an appeal by Utah officials. The Obama administration has said the federal government will recognize same-sex marriages performed in Utah after the judge's ruling.
"Equality is not just for the coasts anymore, and today's news from Oklahoma shows that time has come for fairness and dignity to reach every American in all 50 states," Chad Griffin, president of the Human Rights Campaign, a Washington, D.C.-based gay rights group, said in a statement.
(Reporting by Heide Brandes in Oklahoma City, Mary Wisniewski in Chicago and David Bailey in Minneapolis; Editing by Cynthia Johnston, Gunna Dickson and Eric Walsh)