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Federal Judge Overturns Texas' Gay Marriage Ban, Declaring It Unconstitutional

Alexander Demyanenko

A federal judge ruled Wednesday that Texas’ gay marriage ban is unconstitutional, but he's leaving the ban in place for now.

U.S. District Judge Orlando Garcia in San Antonio issued a preliminary injunction on the ban after two gay couples challenged a state constitutional amendment and a decade-old law.

He said the couples, one of which is from North Texas, will likely win their case and the ban should be lifted. But he said he would give the state time to appeal to the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals. The state will appeal the ruling, said Greg Abbott, the Texas attorney general.

"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."

The Texas ban on same-sex marriage became law in 2003. It was added to the Texas Constitution in 2005 by 76 percent of voters.

Mark Phariss and Victor Holmes of Plano filed the lawsuit, along with a couple from Austin. The North Texas couple said the state's ban unconstitutionally denied them the fundamental right to marry because of their sexual orientation.But attorneys for the state argued that Texas voters had imposed the ban through a referendum and that Texas officials were within their rights.

"Having been together almost 17 years, we look forward to the day when we can get married and when all gay Texans enjoy equal rights to marry as well," Phariss and Holmes said in a statement.

The other plaintiffs, Cleopatra De Leon and Nicole Dimetman of Austin, were pleased with the ruling.“We’ve already cried several times ... I’m still shaking,"Dimetman told KERA. She lives with De Leon and their 20-month-old.“I think I’ve only been this happy in my life when my son was born, and when we got married in Massachusetts.”

Dimetman says she feels vindicated.

“There’s absolutely no credible argument that anybody on the other side can profer ... in order to justify discriminating against us," she said. "Maybe the Fifth Circuit will be the first court to disagree. If that happens, then we’ll take the next steps, but we are very hopeful they will see things our way.”

San Antonio attorney Neel Lane, who is representing the two same-sex couples in the lawsuit, said Wednesday was a “historic day in the state of Texas.”

Garcia, appointed by President Bill Clinton, is the first judge in the conservative Fifth Circuit to reach such a decision.

Wednesday's ruling by Garcia is the latest in a recent series of victories for gay rights activists.

Royal Ferguson, dean of the new University of North Texas law school and retired federal district judge, told KERA that Wednesday's ruling follows similar decisions in recent weeks by federal courts across the country – in Utah, Virginia, Kentucky and Oklahoma.

“The ruling by Judge Garcia is completely consistent with every other ruling with every other court that’s looked at every other state law," Ferguson said.

In each of those cases, Furgeson says, a judge concluded that a state does not have the right to discriminate against same-sex couples under the federal Constitution.

“It’s another domino," he said. "And the ultimate outcome will be the matter will head for the U.S. Supreme Court. And whatever they rule will be the final word.”

Jonathan Saenz of Austin-based Texas Values said Wednesday's ruling was one of the "most egregious forms of judicial activism of our generation."“This is just the beginning of an epic battle on marriage in Texas that the Texas people will ultimately win," Saenz told KERA. "We know that because the Texas people have spoken on this issue in 2005, overwhelmingly supporting the definition of marriages between one man and one woman. ... If this issue was in front of the state legislature ... gay advocates would have zero chance for success on this.”

What are the political implications?

Same-sex marriage has long faced opposition in Texas, especially among Republicans. But, across the country, same-sex marriage is gaining supporters. That could change attitudes in Texas, which may ultimately affect the way political candidates treat the issue. KERA's Shelley Kofler explores the political implications of Wednesday's ruling.

Reaction from across the state and country

Greg Abbott, the Texas attorney general who's the leading Republican gubernatorial candidate, issued a statement: “The ultimate decision about Texas law will be made by the Court of Appeals or the U.S. Supreme Court. The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled over and over again that States have the authority to define and regulate marriage. 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.”

Lt. Gov David Dewhurstsaid: "I am a longtime defender of marriage as a union between one man and one woman, which is why I led the effort to pass the Defense of Marriage Act back in 2003 and pressed for a Constitutional amendment in 2005. Once again, an activist federal judge has unilaterally attempted to undermine the will of the people of Texas who affirmed this amendment with 76% of the vote. I am insisting that the state of Texas appeal this ruling to protect our time-tested, traditional Texas values."

Gov. Rick Perry said: "Texans spoke loud and clear by overwhelmingly voting to define marriage as a union between a man and a woman in our Constitution, and it is not the role of the federal government to overturn the will of our citizens. The 10th Amendment guarantees Texas voters the freedom to make these decisions, and this is yet another attempt to achieve via the courts what couldn't be achieved at the ballot box. We will continue to fight for the rights of Texans to self-determine the laws of our state." Todd Staples, a candidate for lieutenant governor who drafted the constitutional amendment banning gay marriage, said:"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."

State Sen. Wendy Davis, the leading Democratic gubernatorial candidate, said: "I believe that all Texans who love one another and are committed to spending their lives together should be allowed to marry."

Human Rights Campaign president Chad Griffin said:"This injunction sends a powerful message that gay and lesbian Texans are being harmed every by inequality, and that these plaintiff couples who we're proud to call members of the HRC family are very likely to succeed in striking down Texas' ban on marriage equality. This is a historic day in the heart of the South, and I can't stress enough how important it is to move quickly until loving couples in all 50 states feel the full reach of this victory for equality." Chuck Smith, executive director of the gay rights group Equality Texas:"Today's ruling by Judge Garcia is a huge victory that moves Texas one step closer to the freedom to marry."

Read more reaction here.

Meanwhile, State Sen. Dan Patrick sent out a note on Twitter about same-sex marriage that he quickly deleted. Learn more about what happened.

More on the judge's decision

The Dallas Morning News reports:

Garcia cited recent U.S. Supreme Court rulings as having trumped Texas’ moves to ban gay marriage.

“Today’s court decision is not made in defiance of the great people of Texas or the Texas Legislature, but in compliance with the U.S. Constitution and Supreme Court precedent,” he said in his order. “Without a rational relation to a legitimate governmental purpose, state-imposed inequality can find no refuge in our U.S. Constitution.”

But Garcia’s ruling, while a major victory for groups seeking to make marriage legal for gay and lesbian couples nationwide, will not win them Texas marriage licenses anytime soon.

Although Garcia issued a preliminary injunction against the state’s enforcing its 2003 law and 2005 constitutional amendment that limit marriage to opposite-sex couples, he stayed it from taking effect until his ruling can be reviewed on appeal.

The Austin American-Statesman reports:

In Texas, Garcia rejected arguments from state Attorney General Greg Abbott’s office, which argued that each state has the right to define marriage as best fits the traditions of its citizens, that traditional marriage best supports the state’s interest in promoting responsible procreation and child rearing, and that same-sex marriage is a recent innovation that cannot be seen as a fundamental right that must be protected by the courts.

The Texas ban on same-sex marriage, passed into law in 2003 and added to the Texas Constitution by 76 percent of voters in 2005, also is being challenged by two federal lawsuits in Austin that are in the early stages of litigation.

Read the ruling Texas Gay Marriage Ruling by KERANews

We'll update this story through the afternoon.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Photo credit: Alexander Demyanenko/Shutterstock.com

Copyright 2020 KERA. To see more, visit KERA.

Eric Aasen is KERA’s managing editor. He helps lead the station's news department, including radio and digital reporters, producers and newscasters. He also oversees keranews.org, the station’s news website, and manages the station's digital news projects. He reports and writes stories for the website and contributes pieces to KERA radio. He's discussed breaking news live on various public radio programs, including The Takeaway, Here & Now and Texas Standard, as well as radio and TV programs in New Zealand and the United Kingdom.
Doualy Xaykaothao is a newscaster and reporter for NPR, based in Culver City. She returned to NPR for this role in 2018, and is responsible for writing, producing, and delivering national newscasts. She also reports on breaking news stories for NPR.
Lauren Silverman is the Health, Science & Technology reporter/blogger at KERA News. She is also the primary backup host for KERA’s Think and the statewide newsmagazine Texas Standard. In 2016, Lauren was recognized as Texas Health Journalist of the Year by the Texas Medical Association. She was part of the Peabody Award-winning team that covered Ebola for NPR in 2014. She also hosted "Surviving Ebola," a special that won Best Long Documentary honors from the Public Radio News Directors Inc. (PRNDI). And she's won a number of regional awards, including an honorable mention for Edward R. Murrow award (for her project “The Broken Hip”), as well as the Texas Veterans Commission’s Excellence in Media Awards in the radio category.