CASPER, Wyo. -- A federal judge in Wyoming declared unconstitutional the state's definition of marriage, and the state's refusal to recognize the marriages of same-sex couples from elsewhere.
But same-sex couples won't be able to obtain marriage licenses immediately.
U.S. District Court Judge Scott Skavdahl issued the ruling Friday after presiding over an hour-long hearing in federal court in Casper on Thursday.
"Preventing the violation of a party's constitutional rights is always in the public interest," Skavdahl wrote in the conclusion of his 17-page order granting a preliminary injunction blocking Wyoming from enforcing its definition of marriage as "between a male and female person."
However, the judge also granted a temporary stay to implementing the injunction until 5 p.m. Thursday to give the state an opportunity to respond.
"The court is sympathetic to the mounting irreparable harms faced by the Plaintiffs. However, the many changes that result from this are very serious and deserve as much finality as the Court can guarantee. Given the important and fundamental issues apparent in this case, it is in the litigants' and public's interest to ensure the correct decision is rendered. It would only cause a great deal of harm and heart ache if this Court allowed same-sex marriage to proceed immediately only to have a later Court nullify this decision (and with it, the same-sex marriages occurring in the interim)," he wrote.
Lead defendant Wyoming Gov. Matt Mead, who had vowed to fight the case, said later Thursday that he would not appeal a decision favoring the plaintiffs during a gubernatorial debate on Wyoming Public Broadcasting.
The plaintiffs were four same-sex couples and the gay rights group Wyoming Equality.
They based their argument on a case entitled Kitchen v. Herbert, in which the U.S. District Court in Utah declared unconstitutional that state's ban on marriage for same-sex couples in December. The Denver-based 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld that decision in June.
On Oct. 6, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear an appeal of Kitchen and cases from other states, effectively allowing same-sex marriages in those jurisdictions including Wyoming.
The next day, they filed a motion for a preliminary injunction to declare the state definition of marriage as "between a male and a female person" unconstitutional because it violates the Due Process and Equal Protection clauses of the 14th Amendment.
The Kitchen decision stated in part, "the Fourteenth Amendment protects the fundamental right to marry, establish a family, raise children, and enjoy the full protection of a state's marital laws. A state may not deny the issuance of a marriage license to two persons, or refuse to recognize their marriage, based solely upon the sex of the persons in the marriage union."
Skavdahl wrote that this decision controls the question in Wyoming.
Attorneys for Mead and two state agencies argued against the motion for a preliminary injunction, saying that a hasty decision overturning the long-standing marriage definition would cause havoc with the policies in state agencies and political subdivisions including counties.
The plaintiffs' attorneys responded the state presented no evidence showing harm to state agencies.
The Laramie County Clerk, a defendant in the case, agreed with the plaintiffs that legalizing same-sex marriage would pose no burden on her.
Wyoming traditionally is a conservative state with a "live and let live" libertarian attitude. Its motto is "The Equality State" because it is the first government in history to grant women the right to vote.
Jeran Atery, chairman of plaintiff and gay rights group Wyoming Equality, pounced on that point after Thursday's hearing.
“It’s very exciting to be here today as the Wyoming history books are being rewritten,” Artery said. “And I believe today we are one step closer to truly becoming the Equality State.”