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Same-sex marriages begin in Wisconsin after judge strikes down ban

FILE - In this June 26, 2013, file photo, supporters of a U.S. Supreme Court ruling which overturned the federal Defense of Marriage Act carry a large rainbow flag during a parade around the Wisconsin State Capitol in Madison, Wis. A federal judge has struck down Wisconsin's ban on same-sex marriage Friday, June 6, 2014, ruling it unconstitutional. It wasn't clear whether same-sex marriages could immediately begin. (AP Photo/Wisconsin State Journal, John Hart)

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FILE - In this June 26, 2013, file photo, supporters of a U.S. Supreme Court ruling which overturned the federal Defense of Marriage Act carry a large rainbow flag during a parade around the Wisconsin State Capitol in Madison, Wis. A federal judge has struck down Wisconsin's ban on same-sex marriage Friday, June 6, 2014, ruling it unconstitutional. It wasn't clear whether same-sex marriages could immediately begin. (AP Photo/Wisconsin State Journal, John Hart)

MADISON, Wis. - A federal judge struck down Midwestern Wisconsin state's ban on same-sex marriage Friday, the latest in a string of such rulings that have come in rapid succession across the United States.

Same sex-couples in two cities began getting married about an hour after the ruling despite confusion over whether the decision cleared the way for the marriages to begin immediately. Wisconsin's attorney general quickly sought an emergency federal court order to stop the weddings.

U.S. District Judge Barbara Crabb's ruling makes Wisconsin the 27th state where same-sex couples can marry under law or where a judge has ruled they ought to be allowed to wed.

State marriage bans have been falling around the country since the U.S. Supreme Court last year struck down part of the federal Defence of Marriage Act, which defines marriage as between a man and a woman.

Elsewhere in the country, seven couples filed a federal lawsuit Friday challenging the constitutional ban on same-sex marriage in North Dakota, which had been the only state whose ban had not been challenged in the courts. With Friday's filing, cases are currently pending in all 31 states with gay marriage bans.

In 19 states and Washington, D.C., gay couples already can wed, with Oregon and Pennsylvania becoming the latest to join the list when federal judges struck down their bans and officials decided not to appeal.

Crabb's ruling declared the gay marriage ban unconstitutional. But the judge also asked the couples who sued to describe exactly what they wanted her to block in the law, then gave Van Hollen's office a chance to respond. She said she would later decide whether to put her underlying decision on hold while it is appealed.

Clerks in Madison and Milwaukee started marrying same sex-couples Friday evening.

"I'm still up in the clouds!" Shari Roll said shortly after completing her ceremony marrying Renee Currie just a block from the state capitol in Madison.

Wisconsin Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen vowed to appeal the ruling. He said he sought the emergency order to stop the weddings because confusion and uncertainty is resulting and the status quo must be preserved.

The lawsuit alleged that Wisconsin's ban violates the plaintiffs' constitutional rights to equal protection and due process, asserting the prohibition deprives gay couples of the legal protections that married couples enjoy simply because of their gender.

Voters amended the Wisconsin Constitution in 2006, to outlaw gay marriage or anything substantially similar.

The American Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit challenging the ban in February on behalf of four gay couples, then later expanded to eight.

Wisconsin has offered a domestic partner registry that affords gay couples a host of legal rights since 2009, but its future is in doubt; the conservative-leaning Wisconsin Supreme Court is currently weighing whether it violates the constitution.

Gov. Scott Walker, a potential 2016 Republican candidate for president, has a long history of opposing gay marriage and Wisconsin's 2009 domestic registry law. But in recent months, he's avoided talking directly about the state's ban, saying it's an issue that needs to be decided by the courts and state voters who can amend the constitution.

Walker's likely Democratic challenger in the governor's race, Mary Burke, supports legalizing gay marriage.

The North Dakota lawsuit challenges both that state's ban on gay marriage and its refusal to recognize the marriages of same-sex couples who legally wed in other states.

North Dakota's 2004 voter-approved constitutional ban on same-sex marriage was passed by 73 per cent of voters. That state's attorney general's office said it had not yet seen the suit.

"Ultimately, only the Supreme Court can determine whether North Dakota's enactment is constitutional or not," Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem said in a statement.

Chris Plante, a spokesman for the National Organization for Marriage, said the court rulings since last summer have created a distorted perception of public sentiment.

"This is not a wave of popular opinion that is being changed by any stretch of the imagination," he said. "This is simply a wave of justices who are legislating from the bench," he said.

___

Associated Press writers Kevin Burbach in Bismarck, North Dakota, and M.L. Johnson in Milwaukee contributed to this report.

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