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U.S. court hears suit to overturn same-sex marriage ban in Texas

Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott speaks during an anti-abortion rally at the State Capitol in Austin, Texas, July 8, 2013 file photo. REUT
Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott speaks during an anti-abortion rally at the State Capitol in Austin, Texas, July 8, 2013 file photo. REUT

By Jin Forsyth

SAN ANTONIO, Texas (Reuters) - Lawyers for two gay couples challenging a Texas constitutional amendment barring same-sex marriage told a federal court in opening arguments on Wednesday the measure is an "abhorrent violation of human and (U.S.) constitutional rights."

The suit brought by a law firm on behalf of the couples is aimed at winning recognition for same-sex marriage in the deep South, where every state has a constitutional amendment or law that establishes legal marriage as only being between one man and one woman.

Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott, the Republican front-runner in the race this year for governor and a defendant in the suit, argues the state has the right to establish its own marriage policies, adding he will defend the amendment that passed in 2005 with about 75 percent of voter support.

Barry Chasnoff, an attorney for the plaintiffs, asked U.S. District Judge Orlando Garcia for a preliminary injunction to block enforcement of the amendment, saying continuing to deny gays the right to marry "places upon them an unfair burden in the form of a stigma they do not deserve."

"These people are denied the fundamental right to marry because they were born with an immutable sexual orientation which some people do not like," he said.

Assistant Texas Solicitor General Michael Murphy told Garcia the case should not be in court.

"Some states have decided to expand that definition, while other states like Texas have decided to preserve the traditional definition. This debate should not be taken out of the democratic process," Murphy said.

Garcia told lawyers from both parties that he expects their fight to drag on, saying "no matter how I rule, this is going to be appealed."

POLITICAL FOOTBALL

The lawsuits have been growing in recent months, buoyed by federal decisions seen as positive by the advocates of same-sex marriage.

In neighboring Louisiana, four couples and the Forum for Equality Louisiana said on Wednesday they filed a suit in federal court seeking to overturn that state's ban on same-sex marriages on grounds that it violates the U.S. Constitution.

Gay marriage, which was prohibited in almost all states about five years ago, is now permitted in 17 of the 50 U.S. states, as well as the District of Columbia.

The suit in Texas was filed on behalf of Cleopatra De Leon and Nicole Dimetman, two women who live in Austin and were married in Massachusetts, and Victor Holmes and Mark Phariss, two men who were denied a marriage license when they applied last year.

Dimetman and her partner are both military veterans and were legally married in Massachusetts in 2001. They were told they could not jointly adopt a child in Texas because the state does not recognize the legality of their marriage.

They have been encouraged by the Supreme Court's decision in June striking down part of a 1996 federal law, the Defense of Marriage Act, which barred the federal government from recognizing same-sex marriages.

Abbott, in his response filed with the court, argues that gays and lesbians are not victims of discrimination under existing law.

He has been backed by Governor Rick Perry, a former Republican candidate for president. Perry has said he "believes in the sanctity of marriage between a man and a woman, regarding it as the linchpin of the family unit and, thus, society as a whole."

The case is Cleopatra De Leon, Nicole Dimetman, Victor Holmes and Mark Phariss versus Rick Perry, Greg Abbott, Gerard Rickhoff and David Lakey (all in their official capacities), No. 5:13-CV-00982-OLG

(Writing by Jon Herskovitz; Editing by Cynthia Osterman)

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