A U.S. appeals court ruled on Wednesday that conservative Utah may not ban gay couples from marrying, a decision that capped a day of victories for same-sex nuptials and nudges the issue closer to the U.S. Supreme Court.
The ruling by a panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Denver-based 10th Circuit marked the first time that a regional appeals court has made such a decision in the year since the Supreme Court made the federal government extend benefits to legally married same-sex couples.
The decision came as a federal district judge in Indiana joined a growing chorus of jurists who have struck down state gay marriage bans as unconstitutional in rulings that could substantially expand U.S. gay marriage rights if upheld.
"A state may not deny the issuance of a marriage license to two persons, or refuse to recognize their marriage, based solely upon the sex of the persons in the marriage union," the 10th Circuit said in its 2-1 ruling on Utah.
But the panel placed its ruling on hold pending anticipated legal challenges. Utah Governor Gary Herbert said he was disappointed in the ruling and the state attorney general's office said it would appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.
"All Utahns deserve clarity and finality ... and that will only come from the Supreme Court," Herbert said in a statement.
Supporters of gay marriage in the conservative state, where the Mormon church wields big political and social influence, planned a celebratory rally Wednesday night in Salt Lake City.
Utah briefly became the 18th U.S. state where marriage rights were extended to same-sex couples when a federal district judge ruled in December 2013 that a state ban on gay matrimony was unconstitutional.
That decision was put on hold by the U.S. Supreme Court pending appeals but not before more than 1,300 gay and lesbian couples married. Their official status remains unclear.
'Freedom of choice'
Utah lawmakers who oppose gay marriage had argued that the state's constitutional amendment banning such unions was approved by voters and that same-sex marriages were new enough that evidence about their impact on families might not fully be known.
But the court said the state could not restrict the right to marry, or its recognition of marriage, "based on compliance with any set of parenting roles, or even parenting quality."
"We cannot embrace the contention that children raised by opposite-sex parents fare better than children raised by same-sex parents," it said in its ruling, saying the right to marry should not be linked to issues surrounding procreation.
Responding to Utah's argument that same-sex marriage was too new to be rooted in tradition, it cited a 1967 Supreme Court ruling that invalidated laws prohibiting interracial marriage.
"The right at issue was the 'freedom of choice to marry,'" the appeals court said, not tradition.
Separately, U.S. District Judge Richard Young in Indianapolis said Indiana's ban on same-sex marriage was unconstitutional and he ordered officials to start issuing marriage licenses.
Meanwhile, a legal battle over Florida's gay marriage ban intensified this week as state Attorney General Pam Bondi said she would defend measures approved by voters in 2008 in challenges to be heard soon in Orlando and Miami Beach.
In Louisiana, a federal judge heard arguments in a case brought by gay man seeking the benefits married couples enjoy.
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