NEW ORLEANS - A federal judge upheld Louisiana's ban on same-sex marriages on Wednesday, a rare loss for gay marriage supporters who had won more than 20 consecutive rulings overturning bans in other states.
U.S. District Judge Martin Feldman also upheld the state's refusal to recognize same-sex marriages performed legally in other states. His ruling was the first to uphold a state ban since the U.S. Supreme Court struck down part of the federal Defense of Marriage Act last year.
In 2004, 78 percent of Louisiana voters approved an amendment to the state constitution banning gay marriage. Gay marriage is legal in 19 states and the District of Columbia.
Feldman said gay marriage supporters failed to prove that ban violates equal protection or due process provisions of the U.S. Constitution. He also rejected an argument that the ban violated the First Amendment by effectively forcing legally married gay couples to state that they are single on Louisiana income tax returns.
Feldman sided with the state, which had argued that the nation's high court, in the Defense of Marriage Act decision, recognized the rights of state voters and legislatures to define marriage.
"Although opinions about same-sex marriage will understandably vary among the states, and other states in free and open debate will and have chosen differently, that does not mandate that Louisiana has overstepped its sovereign authority," he wrote.
The conservative Louisiana Family Forum praised the ruling
"This ruling confirms that the people of Louisiana - not the federal courts - have the constitutional right to decide how marriage is defined in this state," Gene Mills, the group's president, said in a news release.
However, gay marriage supporters vowed to appeal. They had argued that the ban violated constitutional due process and equal-protection rights.
"Every citizen of the United States deserves protection of their rights, uphill climb or not," said Mary Griggs, chairwoman of Forum for Equality Louisiana.
Feldman said the Supreme Court decision "correctly discredited" the Defense of Marriage Act's effect on New York law legalizing same-sex unions. But, he also noted language in the decision outlining the states' historic authority to recognize and define marriage.
He also said that neither the Supreme Court, nor the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which has jurisdiction in Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas, have defined gay people as a protected class in discrimination cases.
"In light of still-binding precedent, this Court declines to fashion a new suspect class. To do so would distort precedent and demean the democratic process," wrote Feldman, a 1983 appointee of President Ronald Reagan.
It is unlikely Feldman's ruling will derail gay marriage's path to the Supreme Court, as observers have long said the issue of whether gay and lesbian couples have a fundamental right to marry would ultimately need to be decided by the nation's high court.
The 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals is currently considering arguments over six gay marriage cases from Michigan, Ohio, Kentucky and Tennessee. Two other appellate courts, the 10th Circuit in Denver and the 4th Circuit in Virginia, have overturned statewide gay marriage bans in Oklahoma, Utah and Virginia. However, those rulings and others overturning gay marriage bans have been put on hold while appeals are considered.