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A federal judge, saying he was complying with the U.S. Constitution and not trying to defy the people of Texas, struck down Texas' ban on gay marriage, but left it in place Wednesday pending a ruling by an appeals court later this year.

Judge Orlando Garcia issued his ruling in Austin in response to a challenge by two gay couples of the state's 2005 constitutional amendment, which had been approved by 76 percent of voters, and a 2003 law banning gay marriage.

Garcia's decision, however, rejected the argument by the office of Texas Attorney General said each state has the right to define marriage as best fits the traditions of its citizens. Texas also argued that traditional marriage best supports the state's interest in the area of procreation and child rearing.

"After careful consideration, and applying the law as it must, this Court holds that Texas' prohibition on same-sex marriage conflicts with the United States Constitution's guarantees of equal protection and due process," Garcia wrote in a 48-page opinion. "Texas'current marriage laws deny homosexual couples the right to marry, and in doing so, demean their dignity for no legitimate reason."

He continued that regulation of marriage "has traditionally been the province of the states and remains so today," but that "any state law involving marriage or any other protected interest must comply with the United States Constitution."

"Today's Court decision is not made in defiance of the great people of Texas or the Texas Legislature, but in compliance with the United States Constitution and Supreme Court precedent," Garcia wrote. "Without a rational relation to a legitimate governmental purpose, state-imposed inequality can find no refuge in our United States Constitution."

Under federal court rules, a judge may suspend a law if he or she believes the plaintiffs have a strong case and will suffer if the law is enforced.

Federal judges have also struck down bans on gay marriage in Utah, Oklahoma and Virginia. Lawsuits are pending in some 20 other states that ban gay marriage. In Michigan, a federal judge is hearing argument about a constitutional amendment that limits marriage to heterosexuals.

Seventeen states and the District of Columbia allow same-sex marriages.

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