HELENA, Mont. — Gay couples were expected to line up for marriage licenses Thursday at county courthouses across Montana after a federal judge tossed out the state's ban on same-sex marriage.
At least two counties — Missoula and Park — started issuing marriage licenses to gay couples Wednesday, while court clerks elsewhere geared up to do so Thursday.
Among the first Montana couples to get their licenses on Wednesday were Amy Wagner, 56, and Karen Langebeck, 48, of Livingston, who have been together for 22 years.
After hearing about the ruling at 2 p.m. MST, they got on the road to get their license.
"Being able to get married and introduce Karen as my wife — that's a big deal. Now I have a way to describe this relationship that everybody understands," Wagner said.
U.S. District Judge Brian Morris ruled Montana's constitutional amendment limiting marriage to a man and a woman violates the 14th Amendment's equal protection clause.
"This Court recognizes that not everyone will celebrate this outcome," Morris wrote. "This decision overturns a Montana Constitutional amendment approved by the voters of Montana. Yet the United States Constitution exists to protect disfavored minorities from the will of the majority."
The state's Republican attorney general, Tim Fox, plans to appeal, but he said he wouldn't seek to block marriages in the meantime.
In Montana's most populous county, Yellowstone, the clerk of the district court said her office is ready to issue licenses.
"For my office, nothing will be different than any other day," Kristie Lee Boelter said.
Also Thursday, the American Civil Liberties Union will hold celebrations at county courthouses in Billings, Bozeman, Butte, Great Falls, Helena and Missoula. The group will provide officiants for couples who wish to marry immediately, ACLU spokeswoman Amy Cannata said.
"It should be the biggest celebration of marriage in Montana, and I hope everyone comes down to mark this incredible moment in time," she said.
The ruling follows a decision by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in September that struck down Idaho's and Nevada's bans as unconstitutional. Montana is part of the 9th Circuit, and Morris cited the appeals court's opinion in his ruling.
"The time has come for Montana to follow all the other states within the Ninth Circuit and recognize that laws that ban same-sex marriage violate the constitutional right of same-sex couples to equal protection of the laws," he wrote.
Four same-sex couples filed a lawsuit in May challenging Montana's ban, including Angie and Tonya Rolando. "Love won today," Angie Rolando said.
The couple said they plan obtain a wedding license as soon as their courthouse opens Thursday.
Montana and two other states, Kansas and South Carolina, continued their legal fight against same-sex marriage despite rulings from federal appeals courts that oversee them that concluded gay and lesbian couples have the right to wed.
In South Carolina, a judge issued the first gay marriage licenses and a couple wed Wednesday, even as the state attorney general asked the U.S. Supreme Court to step in and block the unions.
Before Wednesday, same-sex couples could marry in 32 states, parts of Kansas and Missouri and the District of Columbia.
Montana Gov. Steve Bullock said in a statement that his administration is taking the appropriate steps to ensure legally married same-sex couples are recognized and afforded the same rights and responsibilities of all married Montanans.
In 2004, Montana voters approved a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage. Such bans have fallen around the country since the Supreme Court last year struck down part of the federal Defense of Marriage Act.
Republican Rep. Steve Daines, who was elected to the U.S. Senate earlier this month, was the sole member of the state's congressional delegation to express disappointment in the ruling, saying an "unelected federal judge" had ignored Montanans' wishes.
Associated Press writer Matthew Brown in Billings contributed to this report.