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Supreme Court's Same-Sex Marriage Ruling Enters the Kentucky Race For Governor

Frankfort, Kentucky - State Capitol Building
Henryk Sadura
Frankfort, Kentucky - State Capitol Building

Kentucky was one of 13 states where same-sex marriage bans were overturnedby a landmark Supreme Court decision on Friday.

In Kentucky, an estimated 57 percent of the populationstill disapproves of same sex marriage, according to a May poll.

With that, state lawmakers and other leaders cautiously responded Friday to the ruling and moved forward with implementing its ramifications.

That included a sharp disagreement on the issue from Kentucky's major party candidates for governor.

In a letter to county clerks around the commonwealth sent shortly after the ruling, Democratic Gov. Steve Beshear declared: “Effective today, Kentucky will recognize as valid all same sex marriages performed in other states and in Kentucky.”

Beshear also instructed the Kentucky Department of Libraries and Archives to send revised marriage license forms to county clerks, adding that government officials must obey the ruling despite personal beliefs.

“Neither your oath nor the Supreme Court dictates what you must believe. But as elected officials, they do prescribe how we must act,” Beshear said in the letter.

Beshear’s declaration comes after years of defending the state’s constitutional ban on same-sex marriage, which passed a public referendum with 74 percent of the vote in 2004.

On Friday, he's order was soon after followed by same-sex couples getting married in Kentucky.

Democratic Attorney General Jack Conway had also defended the ban, until the law was ruled unconstitutional by the late U.S. District Court Judge John Heyburn, who ruled that ban violated the constitutional guarantee of equal protection under the law.

Conway refused to appeal the ruling, saying that doing so would amount to defending discrimination and a waste of resources. Beshear then hired outside counsel to represent the state’s case at the higher courts.

On Friday, Conway, who’s also the Democratic candidate for governor, issued a statement defending his actions, which have come under fire from those who support the ban.

“As Attorney General of the Commonwealth of Kentucky, I did my duty and defended Kentucky's constitutional amendment,” Conway said in the statement.

Conway also noted in a statement that the Supreme Court ruling doesn't force ministers or congregations from acting against their beliefs.

Conway ended his letter with a nod of support for the plaintiffs in the case: “As the Court profoundly stated in its opinion regarding the plaintiffs, 'They ask for equal dignity in the eyes of the law. The Constitution grants them that right.' "

House Speaker Greg Stumbo, a Prestonsburg Democrat, praised the ruling in an email, citing a Christian mandate for tolerance.

“The Bible upon which I swore my oath is often referred to by those who have opposed this ruling,” Stumbo said. “My reading of the Bible teaches me tolerance and understanding for all of God’s children, no matter how rich or poor, no matter the color of their skin and no matter of the personal choices made in their lives.”

Stumbo was one of 107 out of 138 state legislators who signed a brief in support of the same sex marriage ban earlier this year.

In a response on Friday, the speaker noted his oath to uphold Kentucky’s constitution.  “I take that very seriously, and the ban was part of our Constitution, which I swore to protect regardless of what my personal views may have been,” he said.

State Sen. Whitney Westerfield, a Hopkinsville Republican who’s running for attorney general, called Friday’s ruling “unfortunate, because that’s not the will of the people of the Commonwealth.”

Westerfield said he looks forward to Gov. Steve Beshear strengthening the state’s religious freedom law to ensure pastors won’t be required to conduct same-sex marriage ceremonies.

“Are we going to compel pastors to marry homosexual couples if they don’t believe in that?” Westerfield said.

Westerfield also made a jab at current attorney general Conway for not defending the ban.

“As attorney general I’m going to have to enforce some things I don’t believe in including this, unlike General Conway did when this first issue came up last year,” Westerfield said.

Republican gubernatorial nominee Matt Bevin also criticized the Supreme Court’s ruling, saying that “activist judges have chosen to ignore the will of the people, and to ignore the Constitutional principle of state's rights.”

Bevin also accused Conway, his opponent, of “abandoning his oath of office” by not defending the same sex marriage ban. “Jack Conway's failure to do his job and defend our laws in Kentucky disqualifies him from being elected to the office of governor,” Bevin said.

State Sen. Morgan McGarvey, a Louisville Democrat, praised the ruling on Friday.

"What a proud thing for the United States and for Kentucky," McGarvey said. "What the Supreme Court showed us today is that this country is founded on tolerance and acceptance."

McGarvey also threw his support behind Conway's decision to not defend the ban and "waste the state's resources."

"I think today’s decision validates General Conway’s decision."