CINCINNATI (AP) — A federal judge on Monday ordered Ohio to recognize the marriages of same-sex couples performed in other states, and civil rights attorneys and gay marriage supporters immediately began looking ahead to their next fight: a lawsuit seeking to force Ohio to allow gay couples to marry.
Judge Timothy Black's ruling was a partial but significant victory for gay rights supporters, who called it a stepping stone for full marriage equality in Ohio.
Black ruled that Ohio's refusal to recognize gay marriage is a violation of constitutional rights and "unenforceable in all circumstances."
"The record before this court ... is staggeringly devoid of any legitimate justification for the state's ongoing arbitrary discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation," Black wrote.
The state plans to appeal Black's ruling, arguing that Ohio has a sovereign right to ban gay marriage, which voters did overwhelmingly in 2004.
Al Gerhardstein, the Cincinnati civil rights attorney who filed the lawsuit that led to Black's ruling, said Monday that he's been speaking with several gay couples who want to win the right to marry in Ohio. He plans to file a lawsuit in the matter in the next couple weeks.
He called Black's ruling "a sweeping declaration" in favor of gay marriage and thinks the judge has given a clear indication that he would rule in favor of forcing Ohio to allow gay couples to marry in the state.
Black delayed deciding whether to issue a stay of Monday's ruling pending appeal until after attorneys on both sides present arguments on the issue by Tuesday.
However, Black said he's inclined to put the ruling on hold pending appeal, except for a portion that applies to the four gay couples who filed the February lawsuit that led to the court case. That would mean the state would immediately have to recognize their marriages and list both spouses as parents on their children's birth certificates.
If Black declines to stay his ruling, that would allow gay couples in Ohio to obtain the same benefits as any other married couple in the state, including property rights and the right to make some medical decisions for their partner.
Ed FitzGerald, the presumptive Democratic nominee for governor in the November election, said Black's ruling "begins to open the door to full marriage equality in Ohio" and criticized Republican Gov. John Kasich for opposing equal rights.
Kasich spokesman Rob Nichols said in a statement: "The governor believes that marriage is between a man and a woman, he supports Ohio's constitutional ban on same-sex marriage, and we're glad the attorney general is appealing the ruling."
Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine told The Associated Press last week that his job is to defend Ohio's statutes and constitutional provisions and that he will continue to do so.
He declined to speculate what the outcome of the state's appeal will be or the future of gay marriage rights as a whole.
"Every state is having a lively debate over this and I think that's a proper thing to do," he said. "I think it's pretty obvious that all these issues are going to be resolved by the 6th Circuit and some cases are going to get to the Supreme Court. They're going to have a decision in the United States Supreme Court and we're all going to have to accept that."
Ian James, co-founder of the pro-gay marriage group FreedomOhio, called Black's ruling a landmark decision that brings Ohio closer to marriage equality but said "there is still more work to be done."
Separately from the court action, FreedomOhio is seeking to put gay marriage back on the Ohio ballot as early as November, asking voters to require that all legally valid marriages be treated equally under the law, while keeping clergy from being forced to perform same-sex marriages.
Phil Burress, who chaired the 2004 effort to ban same-sex marriage, has said his group is prepared to fight any ballot initiative to repeal the ban.
He said he's confident that appeals courts will overturn Black's order and other recent rulings nationwide in favor of gay marriage.
"This is not the will of the people," Burress said earlier this month. "This is a Hail Mary pass to get everyone forced to recognize same-sex marriage by having the courts do their dirty work."
Gay marriage is legal in 17 states and Washington, D.C. Federal judges recently have struck down gay marriage bans in Michigan, Utah, Texas, Oklahoma and Virginia, though stays have been issued pending appeals.
Similar to Ohio's ruling, judges in Kentucky and Tennessee have ordered state officials to recognize out-of-state gay marriages. The Kentucky decision has been stayed pending appeal, while Tennessee's ruling applies to only three couples.