CHEYENNE, Wyo. (AP) — More than 50 Wyoming lawyers are expressing support for a group's effort to change state law to allow same-sex couples to marry.

The group, called Wyoming Equality, is challenging the state prohibition against same-sex marriage in state court in Cheyenne.

Wyoming Equality Chairman Jeran Artery said Wednesday that he hopes the lawyers' support helps spark a statewide debate on the issue.

"I think any time we can have a professional group of well-respected attorneys sign on and say 'hey, now's the time for the freedom to marry,' I would hope it carries a lot of weight with public opinion," Artery said.

Wyoming Equality and four same-sex Wyoming couples filed a lawsuit earlier this year challenging the state law that defines marriage as existing only between a man and a woman.

The Wyoming Attorney General's Office last month filed a response, asking District Judge Thomas Campbell of Cheyenne to dismiss the lawsuit. The state denies its refusal to allow same-sex couples to marry violates the Wyoming Constitution.

Attempts to reach Wyoming Attorney General Peter Michael and a lawyer in his office handling the state's response to the lawsuit were not immediately successful Wednesday.

Speaking at a news conference earlier this month, Gov. Matt Mead said his administration will defend the state law. "The law in Wyoming is clear that it's between a man and a woman," he said. "We'll defend it, that law."

The Wyoming Legislature has defeated repeated efforts to change state law to allow same-sex marriage. It appears, however, that the issue ultimately will be decided by the federal courts.

A three-judge panel of the U.S. 10th Circuit Court of Appeals earlier this month heard an appeal from the state of Utah over a federal judge's ruling that overturned that state's same-sex marriage ban.

While the appeals court's ultimate decision in the Utah case will cover Wyoming, an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court is likely either way. Other legal challenges to bans on same-sex marriages are heating up in federal courts around the country.

Artery said that if his group is successful in challenging the law in Wyoming, a very conservative state, it could help to send a message when the U.S. Supreme Court ultimately hears the issue.

Former Wyoming Attorney General Pat Crank is among the lawyers voicing support for changing state law to allow same-sex marriage.

In a column earlier this week published in the Wyoming Tribune-Eagle, Crank said he's baffled why Wyoming continues to fight the issue. He noted that many in the state fight to keep government out of their business, away from their guns, health care and private lives.

"Yet, when it comes to allowing same-sex couples to marry, apparently this is an appropriate place for the government to intrude," Crank wrote.

Greg Kabel

Mel Orchard, a lawyer with the Spence Law Firm in Jackson, also signed on in favor of same-sex marriage.

"Marriage, irrespective of gender, is still the foundation I think, of our country, in many ways," Orchard said Wednesday. "So it's a no-brainer to me. Our Constitution should protect everybody and everyone's rights and fundamental liberties and the right to pursue happiness."

Jen Horvath, a lawyer with the Wyoming ACLU, said Wednesday that she believes state laws prohibiting same-sex marriage violate the equal protection clause of the U.S. Constitution.

"It's a fundamental right that shouldn't be denied to anyone," Horvath said. "And in Wyoming, we believe in living and letting people live.

"And since there's a fundamental right to marry, and gay couples in Wyoming and America are full citizens and pay taxes and vote, and serve in the military and run businesses, they should have the same freedoms to marry that other people have," Horvath said.