CHEYENNE, Wyo. — Wyoming stood poised Tuesday to become the latest state to allow gay marriage, bringing the national wave of expanded rights for same-sex couples to a state where the 1998 beating death of Matthew Shepard still influences national perceptions.
The state was scheduled to file a legal notice saying it won't defend a Wyoming law that defined marriage as a union between one man and one woman.
After that formality, county clerks around the state can begin to issue marriage licenses to gay couples and the state will recognize same-sex unions performed legally elsewhere.
The change is particularly notable in the state where Shepard, a gay University of Wyoming student was robbed, tied to a fence and viciously beaten 16 years ago in a rural area outside Laramie. He died days after the attack on Oct. 12, 1998, and two men were convicted of murder and sentenced to life in prison.
Shepard's slaying galvanized a national push for tough penalties for those convicted of targeting victims because of their sexual orientation or race.
A celebration of the long-sought victory by gay rights' advocates — featuring what could become Wyoming's first same-sex wedding — was planned for Tuesday evening in Cheyenne.
Wyoming will join several other politically conservative states in allowing gay marriages after a series of court rulings that have struck down bans as unconstitutional. More than 30 states, including now Alaska and Arizona, have begun to recognize same-sex unions in changes triggered by a U.S. Supreme Court decision Oct. 6 that refused to hear appeals from states that wanted to defend gay marriage bans.
Gay rights supporters have said bans on same-sex unions are violations of 14th Amendment protections that guarantee equal protection under the law and due process. Opponents have said the issue should be decided by states and voters, not courts.
The Rev. Dee Lundberg, pastor of the United Church of Christ in Casper, said she has married about 10 couples who have not had their marriages legally recognized by the state.
"For me," Lundberg said, "nothing really changes except when I do a same-sex couple there's the joy of being able to have full legal rights, which I think is a huge issue for emotionally and spiritually just validating families."