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U.S. judge orders Kentucky to recognize same-sex marriages

(Reuters) - A U.S. federal judge on Thursday ordered Kentucky to recognize the legal same-sex marriages of residents who wed outside the state, the office of the state attorney general said.

The decision is the latest in a string of rulings that expand gay rights following a U.S. Supreme Court decision last year that legally married same-sex couples nationwide are eligible for federal benefits, striking down a key part of the 1996 federal Defense of Marriage Act.

U.S. District Judge John G. Heyburn II's decision makes official a February 12 ruling where he said forbidding recognition of the marriages violated the constitutional rights of same-sex couples to equal protection under the law.

Four Kentucky same-sex couples married out of state had challenged a state law that declared such marriages void and the attendant rights unenforceable. The couples, who were legally wed in Iowa, California, Connecticut and Canada, did not challenge a state constitutional ban on same-sex marriage.

Kentucky had argued its policies were rationally related to a legitimate government interest in preserving traditional marriage.

In all, 17 states plus the District of Columbia recognize gay marriage, including eight states where it became legal in 2013.

(Reporting by Jon Herskovitz; Editing by Scott Malone and Mohammad Zargham)

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