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HELENA – A federal judge Wednesday struck down Montana’s gay marriage ban as unconstitutional, setting off celebrations by same-sex couples who filed the suit and who plan to show up at local courthouses Thursday to get their marriage licenses.

“I’m just overjoyed with happiness,” said plaintiff Susan Hawthorne of Helena, whose Washington state marriage to Adel Johnson will now be recognized by Montana. “It makes us feel like we’re not second-class citizens.”

Missoula County Clerk of Court Shirley Faust said a couple was issued a license Wednesday afternoon, just hours after a judge ordered the ban lifted immediately.

U.S. District Judge Brian Morris of Great Falls, appointed last year by President Barack Obama, permanently blocked Montana from enforcing its constitutional ban on gay marriage and made the ruling effective immediately.

Morris said the ban violates the U.S. Constitution by discriminating against people because of their sexual orientation.

“This court recognizes that not everyone will celebrate this outcome,” he wrote, noting it overturns a ban enacted by state voters in 2004. “Yet the United States Constitution exists to protect disfavored minorities from the will of the majority.”

The ruling makes Montana the 34th state to allow same-sex marriage.

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Montana’s top Democratic officeholders, including Gov. Steve Bullock and U.S. Sens. Jon Tester and John Walsh, hailed the ruling, with Tester calling it “a big step forward for our state.”

But Republican Attorney General Tim Fox said Wednesday he’ll appeal the ruling to the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, because he has a “sworn duty” to defend the state constitution “until such time as there is no further review or no appeal can be made in a court of law.”

However, Fox said he did not plan to ask for a “stay” of the ruling, clearing the way for gay couples to get marriage licenses at local county courthouses.

Amy Cannata, spokeswoman for the American Civil Liberties Union of Montana, said the group and other supporters plan to hold celebrations in Montana’s major cities Thursday morning, as gay couples go to local courthouses to obtain marriage licenses.

Former state Supreme Court Justice James Nelson, an outspoken supporter of individual rights, plans to be at the Lewis and Clark County Courthouse in Helena on Thursday to marry gay couples, she said.

Nancy Sweeney, the District Court clerk in Lewis and Clark County, said Wednesday she had already modified marriage licenses to allow gay couples to obtain one, but that none had shown up on the first day. She said she expects plenty to show up Thursday.

“Judge Morris’ language was very clear it would be a violation if anyone would not be in compliance with his opinion,” Sweeney said. “We would not refuse (a marriage license for) anyone right now.”

Sweeney said it’s possible that other county court clerks may wait for some sort of guidance from their local county attorney before modifying and issuing marriage licenses to gay couples.

While same-sex couples exalted, others criticized Morris’ decision as overturning the will of Montana voters.

“Today, 295,070 Montana voters had their votes nullified by one judge exercising what amounts to a super-vote,” said Jeff Laszloffy of the Montana Family Foundation, a group opposing gay rights and abortion. “I am heartbroken for the people of Montana who have had the redefinition of marriage forced on them by an out-of-control federal judiciary.”

Montana’s constitutional ban on gay marriage passed in 2004 by a voter initiative, with 66.5 percent of the voters in favor.

U.S. Rep. Steve Daines, R-Mont., also said he’s “disappointed that an unelected federal judge has ignored Montanans’ voice in our state’s marriage laws,” and that he believes marriage is “the union of one man and one woman.”

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Four Montana same-sex couples, including three who had been married in other states, sued the state in May to overturn Montana’s ban on gay marriage.

After the 9th U.S. Circuit Court struck down similar bans in Nevada and Idaho, they asked Morris to do the same in Montana, citing the appeals court ruling.

Morris issued his 18-page decision Wednesday afternoon, saying Montana had made “no persuasive argument” that the same-sex marriage ban achieves any “important government objective.”

He noted that the plaintiffs come from all walks of life and all corners of the state, and that they should have the same rights as heterosexual couples.

“No family wants to deprive its precious children of the chance to marry the loves of their lives,” he wrote. “Montana no longer can deprive plaintiffs and other same-sex couples of the chance to marry their loved ones.”

Hawthorne, retired from the Army National Guard, said she was out shopping Wednesday with her sister when she heard about the ruling.

“It’s still just disbelief,” she said, when asked about her reaction. “Any good news like this, you kind of just sit back, and you go, `Is this really true?’ And then it starts to sink in. And, of course, I will be up at the courthouse tomorrow, to support everyone who wants to get married.”

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