By MARK THIESSEN
ANCHORAGE, Alaska (AP) - A federal judge on Sunday struck down Alaska's first-in-the-nation ban on gay marriages, the latest court decision in a busy week for the issue.
It wasn't immediately clear when marriage licenses would be issued to same-sex couples in Alaska, however the state does have a three-day waiting period between applications and marriage ceremonies.
The late Sunday afternoon announcement caught many people off guard. No rallies were immediately planned.
"This is just an amazing day for Alaska. We're just so fortunate that so many have fought for equality for so long - I mean, decades," said Susan Tow, who along with her wife, Chris Laborde, were among couples who sought to overturn Alaska's ban.
Tow and Laborde, who married in Maryland last year, planned to meet with other plaintiffs, some by phone, later Sunday to celebrate.
Earlier in the week, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear appeals from several states that were seeking to retain their bans on same-sex marriage.
The move on Oct. 6 means that gay marriage is now effectively legal in about 30 states. But much of last week was marked by confusion as lower courts and states worked through when weddings can begin.
On Tuesday, a federal appeals court in the West overturned marriage bans in Nevada and Idaho. On Thursday, West Virginia officials began issuing gay marriage licenses, and Kansas' most populous county issued a marriage license Friday to a gay couple, believed to be the first such license in the state.
Sunday's ruling in Alaska came in a lawsuit brought by five gay couples who had asked the state to overturn a constitutional amendment approved by voters in 1998. The amendment defined marriage as being between one man and one woman.
The lawsuit filed in May sought to bar enforcement of Alaska's constitutional ban on same-sex marriage. It also called for barring enforcement of any state laws that refuse to recognize gay marriages legally performed in other states or countries or that prevent unmarried gay couples from marrying.
U.S. District Judge Timothy Burgess heard arguments Friday afternoon and promised a quick decision. He released his 25-page decision Sunday afternoon.
"Refusing the rights and responsibilities afforded by legal marriage sends the public a government-sponsored message that same-sex couples and their familial relationships do not warrant the status, benefits and dignity given to couples of the opposite sex," Burgess wrote.
"This Court finds that Alaska's same-sex marriage laws violate the Due Process and Equal Protection Clauses of the Fourteenth Amendment because no state interest provides 'excessively persuasive justification' for the significant infringement of rights that they inflicted upon homosexual individuals," he wrote.
The state intends to appeal the ruling, Sharon Leighow, a spokeswoman for Gov. Sean Parnell, said in an email to The Associated Press.
Messages sent to the state's attorney general's offices were not immediately returned. Parnell said in a statement Sunday that he has to defend and uphold the law and the Alaska Constitution.
"Although the district court today may have been bound by the recent 9th Circuit panel opinion, the status of that opinion and the law in general in this area is in flux," he said.
Joshua Decker, the executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Alaska, said Alaska has no legal chance of prevailing at either the 9th Circuit Court or with the U.S. Supreme Court.
"It's really unfortunate the governor wants to continue to swim against the tide of history and try to perpetuate discrimination against Alaskans," said Decker. "We're disappointed but that's not going to dampen our elation."
If the state does appeal to the 9th Circuit Court, chances of winning were slim since the federal appeals court already has ruled against Idaho and Nevada, which made similar arguments.
Alaska voters in 1998 approved a state constitutional amendment defining marriage as being between one man and one woman. But in the past year, the U.S. Supreme Court has struck down a provision of the federal Defense of Marriage Act that prevented legally married same-sex couples from receiving a range of federal benefits. Federal courts also have since struck down state constitutional bans in a number of states.
The plaintiffs are Matthew Hamby and Christopher Shelden; Chris Laborde and Susan Tow; Sean Egan and David Robinson; Tracey Wiese and Katrina Cortez; and Courtney Lamb and Stephanie Pearson. Lamb and Pearson are unmarried.
Defendants included Gov. Sean Parnell and Attorney General Michael Geraghty, who earlier this year told The Associated Press he would continue to defend the state's constitutional ban on same-sex marriage, even as federal courts around the country strike down similar bans.
Tow on Sunday said she was happy for the children of Alaska gay couples who will now see their parents recognized.
"We never thought we'd see this in our lives," she said.
Associated Press writer Rachel D'Oro contributed to this report.
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