US judge lifts bans on gay marriages

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Gay marriage appeared set to become legal in the United States last night following a ruling from a judge in Hawaii that will effectively bar the state from denying marriage licences to gay and lesbian couples.

In his long-awaited ruling, Judge Kevin Chang ruled that any attempt by the state of Hawaii to withhold marriage licences on the basis of gender would be illegal under the US Constitution. That opens the way for homosexuals in the state to attain the same marital status as heterosexuals.

Hawaii is likely to appeal the ruling in the state Supreme Court. It is unlikely to be overturned, however, and most experts expect the first gay weddings to take place in the state before the end of next year.

The ruling is certain to ignite a conservative backlash across America. Because the Constitution demands that each state recognise the laws and regulations of every other state, a couple married in Hawaii would normally expect to be legally recognised as such across the US.

The case was first brought to the courts by three Hawaiian couples five years ago. In 1993, the Hawaiian Supreme Court delivered a provisional ruling in their favour. The state was given a chance to demonstrate a "compelling interest" why gay marriages should be legalised. Yesterday's ruling marked the end of hearings into arguments presented by the state.

The judge, "in a nutshell" ruled that the sex-based classification in the state's marriage law is unconstitutional, Kirk Cashmere, a lawyer for the gay couples said last night.

The state had argued that to allow gay marriage could endanger the welfare of any children that gay couples might seek to raise.