Timothy Burcham and Phillip Marcum wed two years ago in New York City, and starting Thursday afternoon, the Lexington men's marriage was as legal as anyone else's in Kentucky.
"We're ecstatic," said Burcham, a vice president at the Kentucky Community and Technical College System. "For us, it's long overdue recognition. It allows us to treat our relationship and our assets and our rights and responsibilities the same way that everyone else gets to."
Although much remains uncertain, Burcham said he looks forward to some of the legal advantages of marriage, such as being able to cover his spouse on his workplace health insurance plan.
"We're about to file joint tax returns for the first time," Burcham said.
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U.S. District Judge John G. Heyburn II in Louisville issued a final order Thursday requiring Kentucky to recognize same-sex marriages legally performed in other states and countries. Heyburn struck down parts of a 1998 state law and a 2004 state constitutional amendment defining marriage in Kentucky as between one man and one woman, and prohibiting the state from recognizing same-sex marriages from elsewhere.
"To the extent (that state laws) deny validly married same-sex couples equal recognition and benefits under Kentucky and federal law, those laws violate the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment of the United States Constitution, and they are void and unenforceable," Heyburn wrote in his two-sentence order.
However, Gov. Steve Beshear and Attorney General Jack Conway, who defended the same-sex marriage ban in court, have 30 days to appeal. And hours before Heyburn handed down his order, Conway's office filed a motion asking Heyburn for a "stay," a 90-day delay in implementing the ruling.
"This will give defendants time to determine if they will appeal the order, and the executive branch time to determine what actions must be taken to implement this court's order if no appeal is taken," Clay Barkley, a lawyer for Conway's office, wrote in Thursday's motion. "Should defendants elect to appeal from any final order, they reserve the right to seek a stay for the duration of an appeal."
Heyburn responded to Conway's request by scheduling a telephone conference call for the lawyers in the case for 2:30 p.m. Friday.
But for at least one day, same-sex marriages performed elsewhere are legal in Kentucky, said Laura Landenwich, an attorney for four same-sex married couples who sued Beshear and Conway last year.
"We're reluctant to celebrate just yet because we're in this odd position. For now, all of these laws are invalidated in Kentucky and the marriages are recognized as legal. But that all may change tomorrow," Landenwich said.
"It's a little frustrating, the attorney general politicking with this issue," she said. "I understand the politics on this are complicated, but the way he's handled this has really sort of muddled everything."
In a prepared statement, Conway said he's reviewing Heyburn's order. He and Beshear "will be determining promptly" whether to appeal, Conway said.
Although Heyburn can strike down state laws, it's ultimately up to Beshear and Conway to provide guidance for the state's executive branch and local elected officials, such as judges and county clerks, who handle everything from adoptions to name changes, lawyers in the case said.
The conservative Family Foundation of Kentucky issued several statements throughout the day criticizing Conway for not staunchly defending the state's same-sex marriage ban. Conway was so uninterested that he left the suit in the hands of "underlings" who lost, said Family Foundation policy analyst Martin Cothran.
"Until today, the only people in the attorney general's office who hadn't signed a motion in the marriage case are the janitor, the messenger boy and Jack Conway," he said. "This is a betrayal of Kentucky voters. The only thing missing is the thirty pieces of silver."
Also Thursday, Heyburn issued an order allowing new plaintiffs to join the suit against Beshear and Conway and to raise a new question.
The original plaintiffs were same-sex spouses who legally wed outside Kentucky and wanted state recognition. The new plaintiffs are two Jefferson County same-sex couples who want Kentucky to issue them marriage certificates: Timothy Love and Lawrence Ysunza, who have lived together for 33 years, and Maurice Blanchard and Dominique James, who have been together for 10 years.
The new plaintiffs' complaint could be decided as early as this summer, yielding a second order from Heyburn that legitimizes all same-sex marriages inside the state of Kentucky, said Landenwich, who also represents the new plaintiffs.