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Federal judge says Utah's gay marriage ban 'unconstitutional'

SALT LAKE CITY--A federal judge struck down Utah's ban on same-sex marriage as unconstitutional on Friday, handing a major victory to gay rights activists in a conservative state where the Mormon Church wields considerable influence.

U.S. District Judge Robert Shelby, ruling in a lawsuit brought by three gay couples, found that an amendment to the Utah Constitution defining marriage as exclusively between a man and a woman violated the rights of gay couples to due process and equal protection under the U.S. Constitution.

The 53-page decision adds to growing momentum toward legalizing gay marriage across the United States.

“The state's current laws deny its gay and lesbian citizens their fundamental right to marry and, in doing so, demean the dignity of these same sex couples for no rational reason,” Shelby said, barring Utah from enforcing its ban.

Gay couples rushed to the altar. Some were dressed informally and one woman arrived in hospital scrubs. There was a festive atmosphere in Salt Lake City's county government building for a string of impromptu weddings — including that of a state senator to his longtime partner.

But a spokesman for the state's Attorney General's office said lawyers would seek an emergency stay of the judge's order while it appealed to a higher court. The office filed a notice of appeal with the U.S. Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver.

“I am very disappointed an activist federal judge is attempting to override the will of the people of Utah,” said Utah Governor Gary Herbert.

The ruling, if it is not stayed by a higher court, would make Utah the 18th U.S. state to allow same-sex nuptials.

“It feels unreal,” plaintiff Moudi Sbeity, who sued along with partner Derek Kitchen, told the Salt Lake Tribune newspaper after Shelby's ruling.

On Thursday, the New Mexico Supreme Court ruled to allow same-sex marriage across the state. Last month, Hawaii and Illinois governors signed bills to legalize same-sex weddings.

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Michael Ferguson kisses his husband, Seth Anderson, right, after they were married at the Salt Lake County offices in Salt Lake City, Utah on Friday, Dec. 20.

(AP)

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