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Judge Rules Missouri's Ban On Same-Sex Marriage Is Unconstitutional; Couples Step Up In St. Louis

A judge in St. Louis has ruled Wednesday that Missouri's ban on same-sex marriage is unconstitutional. Almost immediately, several same-sex couples made their way to City Hall to get their marriage licenses.

"The court recognizes that the freedom to marry is a fundamental right and liberty deeply rooted in the history of the United States," St. Louis Circuit Judge Rex Burlison said in his ruling Wednesday. He heard arguments in the case on Sept. 29.

The case came about after the city of St. Louis issued marriage licenses in June to four same-sex couples, defying the state's 2004 constitutional amendment banning same sex marriage. Assistant Attorney General Jeremiah Morgan argued that 71 percent of Missourians voted for the referendum defining marriage as between a man and a woman.

"[Missouri] contends that it has a compelling state interest in providing uniformity and stability by providing a standardized definition of marriage," Burlison wrote. "[Missouri] is without controlling precedent to support this argument, relying on mere speculation of harm that does not constitute a compelling state interest."

"Any same sex couple that satisfies all the requirements for marriage under Missouri law, other than being of different sexes, is legally entitled to a marriage license," Burlison wrote.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Missouri praised Wednesday's ruling.

"With our marriage recognition case win last month, and today’s win for the city of St. Louis to issue marriage licenses, Missouri is finally joining the mainstream by allowing loving couples to formalize their commitment with marriage,” said Tony Rothert, legal director of the ACLU of Missouri.

Attorney General Chris Koster said that he has appealed the ruling to the Missouri Supreme Court.

"The constitutional challenge to Missouri's historically recognized right to define marriage must be presented to and resolved by the state's highest court," Koster said in a statement. But he also added that his office would not seek a stay of the court's order while the Missouri Supreme Court weighs the case:

Maggie Crane, a spokesperson for St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay also said that marriage licenses would also be issued to same-sex couples by St. Louis County:

Commotion at the recorder of deeds office

Soon after Burlison issued his decision, same-sex couples flocked to St. Louis Recorder of Deeds Jennifer Florida’s office to procure marriage license. 

Credit Jason Rosenbaum/St. Louis Public Radio
Lilly Leyh, left, and Sadie Pierce were the first same-sex couple to receive a marriage license after Burlison's decision. They plan to get married on Wednesday night. "Our wedding is going to be in June," Leyh said. "And I think there’s a difference between marriage and a wedding. You know and what those things mean. And legally, it’s so important. But for us, there’s more than just the rights that come along with it and we’re excited for both. We’re pretty thrilled."

Lilly Leyh and Sadie Pierce were the first couple to be granted a license. Leyh received a text message while  driving, news that Pierce joked prompted her to “step on the gas” toward City Hall.

“When we were told it was happening, we were told people were already getting licenses,” Pierce said. “So when they said we were the first, it was a little bit of shock.”

Leyh said she didn’t know if the distinction of being the first to receive a license after Burlison’s ruling “carries more weight.” But she said the couple was “excited” and “thrilled.”

“There are so many people that always wanted to get married but haven’t been able to,” Leyh said. “And I feel like for a young couple to get married first is sort of an interesting dynamic and something that is overwhelming. You know? Because some people never had that opportunity.”

Florida said she felt like she was taking part in “a historic moment in the state of Missouri.” 

Credit Jason Rosenbaum, St. Louis Public Radio
St. Louis Recorder of Deeds Jennifer Florida holds a copy of Burlison's decision.

“We’ve been waiting, right?” Florida said. “So we felt the anticipation. And you could feel the anticipation build. And so finally, we are here at this moment where we are allowing all Missourians to have their right to marry the person that they love that they choose.”

St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay and Alderman Shane Cohn, D-25th Ward were also on hand to watch the flurry of activity in Florida’s office. Slay said it was gratifying to see the amendment struck down, especially since he was one of the few prominent elected officials to oppose it in 2004.

“I did anticipate and expect that at some point,” said Slay, who has siblings who are gay or lesbian. “At this point, I have to tell you I wasn’t sure it was going to happen this soon. But as we’ve seen, the wave of public opinion has really changed in favor of same-sex marriages throughout the country. We’re a little behind in Missouri, but we’re catching up quickly.”

Cohn – the first openly gay member of the Board of Aldermen – was present at a June press conference announcing the decision to grant the licenses. When asked if he felt that would be the catalyst to strike the amendment down, Cohn replied: “I hoped it would be.”

“We’re really trying to push the envelope and do the right thing as a city,” Cohn said. “And it appears as though the courts across the country are in agreement with we’re doing here in St. Louis. It’s been affirmed by a number of state and federal courts at this point. I think we’re moving in the right direction.”

Here are some of the early reactions to the news on Twitter:

Follow Chris McDaniel on Twitter@csmcdaniel

Jason is the politics correspondent for St. Louis Public Radio.