By JIM SALTER
ST. LOUIS (AP) - A Missouri statute can't stand in the way of marriage, even if the groom is behind bars, a federal judge has ruled.
U.S. District Judge Fernando Gaitan Jr. on Thursday ruled unconstitutional a state law requiring both the prospective bride and groom to sign a marriage license in the presence of a county recorder of deeds or a deputy recorder. The judge, in Kansas City, Mo., sided with five women engaged to Missouri prison inmates who were denied marriage by the statute last year. They filed suit in November.
"Plaintiffs have a constitutional right to marry their incarcerated fiances," Gaitan wrote, noting that the right to marry is protected by the due process clause of the 14th Amendment.
Nanci Gonder, a spokeswoman for Missouri Attorney General Chris Koster, said the state will not appeal. A Missouri Department of Corrections spokeswoman declined comment.
Because betrothed inmates can't make it to the county recorder's office, marriage license applications involving inmates typically are brought into a prison.
The lawsuit claimed that Cole County's recorder had been allowed to enter prisons for 17 years, but was denied entry in August and unable to bring marriage licenses to prisoners. The reason: He declined to list his Social Security number on a form entitled "Application for Facility Access."
The five weddings scheduled for Sept. 24 were called off.
"Fundamental rights, like the right to marry, must be made available equally to all couples," said Tony Rothert, an attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union, which filed suit on behalf of the prospective brides. "The court recognized that Missouri's statute was an insurmountable barrier and the Constitution required that it be removed."
Courts have stepped in previously to make it easier for Missouri inmates to wed. In 1987, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a Missouri prison policy that allowed inmates to marry only with permission from the warden. Prison officials at the time testified that generally only a pregnancy or birth of a child would be compelling enough reason for a marriage.
Diane Balogh of the ACLU said one of the five couples held a Muslim wedding ceremony without a license and do not plan to seek one. The other four couples plan to marry Monday at the state prison in Jefferson City.