LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Two of Kentucky’s top Democrats split sharply Tuesday over same-sex marriage, with Governor Steve Beshear saying outside lawyers will be hired to appeal a decision granting recognition to gay couples married in other states after the attorney general said he would not pursue the case.
The high-level intraparty divide — illustrating the rapid spread of the gay marriage debate into America’s conservative heartland — came four days after a federal judge in Louisville gave Kentucky 21 days to implement a ruling that overturned a ban on recognizing same-sex unions. Voters overwhelmingly approved the ban in 2004.
Attorney General Jack Conway choked up with emotion at a news conference announcing he would not appeal the ruling.
‘‘I would be defending discrimination,’’ Conway said. ‘‘That I will not do.’’
Minutes later, Beshear said in a written statement that the potential for ‘‘legal chaos is real’’ if a delay is not granted while the case is appealed. He noted that litigation over gay marriage is pending in many other states and said the issue ultimately should be decided by the US Supreme Court.
Unless the judge’s order is stayed by a higher court, Kentucky will have to allow same-sex couples married outside the state to change their names on official identifications and documents and obtain any other benefits of a married couple in Kentucky.
‘‘Employers, health care providers, governmental agencies, and others faced with changing rules need a clear and certain road map,’’ Beshear said. ‘‘Also, people may take action based on this decision only to be placed at a disadvantage should a higher court reverse the decision.’’
The statement said Beshear would not comment further Tuesday.
US District Judge John G. Heyburn said in an opinion issued Feb. 12 that Kentucky’s ban on recognizing same-sex marriages violated the Constitution’s equal-protection clause in the 14th Amendment because it treated ‘‘gay and lesbian persons differently in a way that demeans them.’’
The decision arose from a lawsuit filed by two couples who were married in other states or countries over the past 10 years and sought to force Kentucky to recognize their unions. Heyburn’s ruling does not require the state to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples; that is the subject of a separate lawsuit in which Heyburn expects to rule by this summer.
Heyburn is among several federal judges who have issued rulings in support of same-sex marriage since the Supreme Court’s decision in Windsor v. U.S. in June that struck down part of the federal antigay-marriage law.
The latest state ruling came last week in Texas.
Two of the rulings — striking down same-sex marriage bans in Utah and Oklahoma — are being appealed to a federal Appeals Court in Denver.
On Tuesday, a group of Republicans came out in support of legalizing gay marriage in those states, arguing that allowing same-sex unions is consistent with the Western conservative values of freedom and liberty once championed by Ronald Reagan and Barry Goldwater.
Seventeen states and Washington, D.C., allow same-sex marriage. Democratic attorneys general in at least seven states — Virginia, Pennsylvania, California, Illinois, Oregon, Nevada, and now Kentucky — have declined to defend same-sex-marriage bans that have been challenged in court by gay couples.
US Attorney General Eric Holder said last week that his state counterparts are not obligated to defend state laws banning same-sex marriage if they believe the laws violate the Constitution.
Conway, who said he consulted with Beshear and state lawmakers, said he prayed over his decision. ‘‘In the end, this issue is really larger than any single person and it’s about placing people above politics,’’ Conway said.
Tony Perkins, president of the conservative Family Research Council, assailed the attorney general.
‘‘Jack Conway took an oath to uphold the constitution and the laws of Kentucky, not undermine them through indifference driven by his personal ideology,’’ Perkins said.
Laura Landenwich, who represents several of the plaintiffs in the case, called Beshear’s move ‘‘a political stunt designed to cull favor’’ for any future run for office.