AUSTIN, Texas (AP) -- A federal judge declared a same-sex marriage ban in deeply conservative Texas unconstitutional on Wednesday, but will allow the nation's second-most populous state to enforce the law pending an appeal that will likely go to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Judge Orlando Garcia issued the preliminary injunction after two gay couples challenged a state constitutional amendment and a longstanding law. His ruling is the latest in a tangled web of lawsuits across the country expected to end up in the Supreme Court next year.
"Without a rational relation to a legitimate governmental purpose, state-imposed inequality can find no refuge in our United States Constitution," Garcia wrote. "These Texas laws deny plaintiffs access to the institution of marriage and its numerous rights, privileges, and responsibilities for the sole reason that Plaintiffs wish to be married to a person of the same sex."
Garcia said the couples are likely to win their case and the ban should be lifted, but said he would not enforce his ruling pending a ruling by the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals, which already is hearing two other states' cases. He also will give Texas time to appeal to the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans.
Garcia, appointed by President Bill Clinton, is the first judge in the conservative 5th Circuit to reach such a decision. Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott was expected to file an expedited appeal.
The ruling is the latest in a series of victories for gay rights activists following similar decisions in Utah, Oklahoma and Virginia. The U.S. Supreme Court put the Utah ruling on hold until the 10th Circuit can consider an appeal, and Garcia said he would respect that order as well.
Mark Phariss and Victor Holmes filed their federal civil rights lawsuit saying Texas' ban unconstitutionally denied them the fundamental right to marry because of their sexual orientation. Cleopatra De Leon and Nicole Dimetman filed a lawsuit saying Texas officials violated their rights by not recognizing their marriage conducted in a state where gay marriage is legal.
Attorneys for the state argued that Texas voters had imposed the ban through a referendum and that Texas officials were within their rights to defend marriage traditions.
Another gay couple has filed a separate lawsuit in federal court in Austin. In that case, two men argue that the ban discriminates against them based on their gender. That case is scheduled for a hearing later this year.
"Today's ruling by Judge Garcia is a huge victory that moves Texas one step closer to the freedom to marry," said Chuck Smith, executive director of the gay rights group Equality Texas.
Todd Staples, a candidate for lieutenant governor who drafted the constitutional amendment banning gay marriage, denounced the court's decision.
"I am disappointed that judicial activism is once again trying to trump the will of the people. This ruling is the poster child of the culture war occurring in America today," he said.
The top Democrat and Republican running to become the next governor of Texas also weighed in Wednesday's ruling.
"I believe that all Texans who love one another and are committed to spending their lives together should be allowed to marry," state Sen. Wendy Davis (D-Fort Worth) said in a statement to KVUE.
"This is an issue on which there are good, well-meaning people on both sides. And, as the lower court acknowledged today, it’s an issue that will ultimately be resolved by a higher court," read astatement from Attorney General Greg Abbott (R-Texas), who filed a formal appeal Wednesday.
"The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled over and over again that States have the authority to define and regulate marriage," the statement continued. "The Texas Constitution defines marriage as between one man and one woman. If the Fifth Circuit honors those precedents, then today’s decision should be overturned and the Texas Constitution will be upheld."