(CNN) -- A federal judge ruled Wednesday that Kentucky's denial of recognition for same-sex marriages violates the U.S. Constitution's guarantee of equal protection under the law.
The issue was brought to the court by four same-sex couples validly married outside of the Bluegrass State.
"It is clear that Kentucky's laws treat gay and lesbian persons differently in a way that demeans them," wrote U.S. District Judge John G. Heyburn II.
"Assigning a religious or traditional rationale for a law, does not make it constitutional when that law discriminates against a class of people without other reasons," the 23-page ruling read.
It continued: "The Court concludes that Kentucky's denial of recognition for valid same-sex marriages violates the United States Constitution's guarantee of equal protection under the law, even under the most deferential standard of review. Accordingly, Kentucky's statutes and constitutional amendment that mandate this denial are unconstitutional."
Heyburn's ruling did not specifically address the issue of whether Kentucky must issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples.
The decision was blasted by Paul Chitwood, executive director-treasurer of the Kentucky Baptist Convention, who described it as both "tragic and disappointing."
"As Heyburn declares that the Commonwealth must recognize gay marriages performed in other states, the Constitution of Kentucky is being undermined. This decision moves us down the slippery slope toward launching Kentucky into moral chaos and depriving children of their innate need of both a father and a mother. I pray the appeals process will honor the Commonwealth's constitution and protect her children."
Same-sex marriage is legal in 17 U.S states and the District of Columbia: California, Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Illinois, Iowa, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, Rhode Island, Vermont, and Washington.
Worldwide, 16 other countries (and parts of Mexico) also have laws allowing same-sex marriage and domestic partnerships. Most of the nations are in Europe and South America.
CNN's Bill Mears and Kevin Conlon contributed to this report.