By David Bailey
(Reuters) - Kentucky must recognize the legal same-sex marriages of residents who wed outside the state, a federal judge said on Wednesday in the latest of a string of rulings that expand gay rights following a U.S. Supreme Court decision last year.
U.S. District Judge John G. Heyburn II in Louisville said a series of U.S. Supreme Court decisions including the striking down of a key part of the federal Defense of Marriage Act last year, led to his decision on Wednesday.
"Each of these small steps has led to this place and this time, where the right of same-sex spouses to the state-conferred benefits of marriage is virtually compelled," Heyburn said in a 23-page ruling.
Same-sex marriage is legal in 17 states plus the District of Columbia but not in the remaining states, and the debate over gay marriage is playing out in a series of court challenges around the United States.
Four Kentucky same-sex couples married out of state had challenged a state law that declared such marriages void and the attendant rights unenforceable. The couples, who were legally wed in Iowa, California, Connecticut and Canada, did not challenge a state constitutional ban on same-sex marriage.
The Kentucky ruling came on the same day gay couples in Missouri challenged that state's ban on recognizing their marriages from other states.
Heyburn ruled that the law the couples challenged violated their constitutional right to equal protection. The judge found that Kentucky's laws treated gay and lesbian persons differently, in a way that demeans them.
Kentucky had argued that its public policies were rationally related to a legitimate government interest in preserving traditional marriage.
Brian Brown, president of the National Organization for Marriage, a group that opposes same-sex marriage, said Congress should step in and reinforce that states have the right to make their own determination regarding marriage.
"Today's decision emphasizes the need for Congressional action to prevent our states' marriage laws from spiraling further into chaos," Brown said in a statement.
Michael Aldridge, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Kentucky, urged the state to let the ruling stand.
Heyburn said in his ruling that for years many states had a tradition of segregation, deprived women of equal rights under the law and articulated reasons supporting those positions.
"In time, even the most strident supporters of these views understood that they could not enforce their particular moral views to the detriment of another's constitutional rights," he wrote.
(Additional reporting by Edith Honan in New York; editing by Gunna Dickson)