federal judge in San Antonio ruled Wednesday afternoon that Texas law which restricts legal marriage to one man and one woman is a violation of the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, but U.S. District Judge Orlando Garcia placed his ruling on hold pending appellate review.
"Today's Court decision is not made in defiance of the great people of Texas of the Texas Legislature, but in compliance with the United States Constitution and Supreme Court precedent," Garcia wrote in his 47 page opinion. "Texas laws deny Plaintiffs access to the institution of marriage and its numerous rights, privileges, and responsibilities for the sole reason that Plaintiffs with to be married to a person of the same sex."
Neel Lane, who is the lead attorney for two gay couples who challenged the Texas law, called it an 'historic day.'
"There have been 19 decisions since last summer, and all of the rulings have come down in favor of plaintiffs challenging same sex restrictions as unconstitutional," he told 1200 WOAI news. "The direction has been very clear. The courts have found that restrictions based on sexual orientation should be stricken down as unconstitutional."
Texas law banning gay marriage was passed by the voters in 2005 with 67% of Texas voters supporting it. But Nicole Dimetman, who was legally married to her lesbian partner in Massachusetts but joined the lawsuit after the couple was unable to jointly adopt. They was joined by a committed gay couple who were denied a license to marry in Texas.
Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott did not immediately comment on the ruling, but a spokesman pointed out that the judge ordered it 'stayed pending the state's appeal.'
Abbott is the likely Republican nominee for governor, and the issue is certain to come up in the campaign, because likely Democratic nominee Wendy Davis has endorsed gay marriage.
"The Texas Democratic Party believes that everyone should have the right to be with the person they love and we look forward to the day in Texas when everyone can marry who they love," Texas Democratic Party Chair Gilberto Honojosa said. "This is a historic day for the LGBT community and the state of Texas."
Conservative activists immediately blasted the ruling.
"This ruling by unelected Federal Judge Orlando Garcia is the most egregious form of judicial activism of our generation," Jonathan Saenz, an attorney and president of Texas Values, a conservative activist group which unsuccessfully sought to intervene in the case, told Reuters.
Saenz said he remains optimistic that an appellate court will overturn the ruling.
"Thankfully, the Fifth Circuit has a habit of correcting some of the horrible mistakes that some of the lower courts in Texas have made. Someone needs to put some real emphasis on the law, and remind people what the real role is of the courts."
He called today's ruling a 'hollow victory and a clear attack on morality.'
"This is just the beginning of an epic battle that the Texas people will ultimately win on behalf of the only true definition of marriage, between one man and one woman."
Texas Gov. Rick Perry said he will 'continue to fight' the ruling.
"Texans spoke loud and clear by overwhelmingly voting to define marriage as a union between a man and a woman," Perry said in a statement. "It is not the role of the federal government to overturn the will of the citizens. The Tenth 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."
Check Smith, who heads the gay rights group Equality Texas, says today's ruling 'moves Texas one step closer to the freedom to marry.'
"This case is probably headed ultimately to the U.S. Supreme Court," he said, but added he was cautious in the near term.
"I think the Fifth Circuit is a court that is regarded as less likely to sustain this ruling, but regardless of whether the appeals court upholds it or reverses it, it will eventually make it to the U.S. Supreme Court," he said.
But Lane is confident that the Supreme Court will take up the case in next year's term, and he thinks gay marriage will be the law of the land.
"My clients are naturally elated and thrilled," he said. "They are thrilled for everyone in Texas who wants the right to be married."