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Federal Judge In Kansas City Strikes Down Missouri’s Ban On Same-Sex Marriage

Jeremy Bernfeld

Updated, 5:10 p.m. Friday:

The Jackson County Recorder of Deeds began issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples Friday afternoon after a federal judge in Kansas City struck down Missouri's same-sex marriage ban.

Jackson County officials had told couples seeking marriage licenses they would have to wait because the judge's order had been stayed. But  Jackson County Executive Mike Sanders directed the Recorder of Deeds office to begin issuing licenses to same-sex couples Friday afternoon.

“Marriage affords couples important legal protections, ranging from family leave, the ability to care for or visit a sick spouse, the opportunity to secure inheritances, or file for joint insurance,” Sanders said in a release. “I am pleased that our staff is working expeditiously to accommodate applicants.”

Shortly after 2 p.m., retired Judge Vernon Scoville performed the first of the day's wedding ceremonies, joining Robert Gann and John Kenny Rodricks in matrimony at the Jackson County Courthouse. 

The fast-moving events came after U.S. District Judge Ortrie Smith struck down Missouri’s 2004 constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage — the latest in a series of decisions handed down by both state and federal courts in the last week.

Missouri Attorney General Chris Koster immediately said he would appeal to the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

At around the same time, Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon, at a news conference in Kansas City announcing a summer jobs program, said he favored same-sex marriage. 

“I’ve come to believe as many Missourians have that people should be able to marry who they love," Nixon said. "We shouldn’t discriminate against people wanting to get married. So I think we’re seeing a movement of a number of cases through that are going to get to that point across the country relatively quickly.”

Nixon was careful not to criticize Koster, however. The important thing, he said, was to clear up the legal confusion.

“The people of Missouri passed a constitutional amendment in this area," Nixon said. "Making sure there’s a clear legal precedent out there that everybody in the state – whichever way it goes – that everyone in the state follows so we don’t have the patchwork inside a state that exists right now is important. I’m confident the attorney general will try to get to the ultimate clarity here so that we don’t have the situation we have now where you have folks in the city of St. Louis moving forward but folks in some other counties not.”

Smith's ruling came two days after a state court judge in St. Louis found Missouri’s ban to be a violation of the U.S. Constitution. And it followed yet another decision on Tuesday by a federal judge in Kansas City, Kan., that overturned Kansas’ ban on same-sex marriage.

That ruling is set to take effect this coming Tuesday, Nov. 11,  after a federal appeals court in Denver today denied the state's request for a stay. 

“We have both a state court judge and a federal court judge who have said essentially the same thing that the time to discriminate is over,” said Jeffrey Mittman, executive director of the ACLU of Missouri.

Smith’s decision tracked those of virtually every court that has ruled on state same-sex marriage bans. A rare exception occurred Thursday when the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Cincinnati upheld the right of four states to prohibit same-sex marriage – a decision at odds with those of four other federal appellate courts.

The split among the circuits makes it more likely that the U.S. Supreme Court will take up the matter. The high court has yet to squarely address the question of whether bans on same-sex marriage are unconstitutional.

Smith handed down his 18-page decision in a lawsuit filed in June by the American Civil Liberties Union of Missouri on behalf of two same-sex couples who were denied marriage licenses. Smith found that Missouri's ban violated both the Equal Protection and Due Process clauses of the U.S. Constitution. 

Smith permanently enjoined Robert T. Kelly, the director of the Jackson County Recorder of Deeds, from declining to issue marriage licenses based on applicants' gender "or otherwise enforcing the prohibition on issuing a marriage license except to a man and a woman."

“It’s a great day for lesbian and gay couples in the state of Missouri,” Mittman said. “Anytime a discriminatory barrier is lowered that is progress for our state.”

Jeremy Bernfeld and Elle Moxley contributed to this report.

Dan Margolies has been a reporter for the Kansas City Business Journal, The Kansas City Star, and KCUR Public Radio. He retired as a reporter in December 2022 after a 37-year journalism career.
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