DENVER (AP) - A federal appeals court on Wednesday ruled for the first time that states must allow gay couples to marry, finding the Constitution protects same-sex relationships and putting a remarkable legal winning streak across the country one step closer to the U.S. Supreme Court.
The decision from a three-judge panel in Denver upheld a lower court ruling that struck down Utah's gay marriage ban. The panel immediately put on the ruling on hold so it could be appealed, either to the entire 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals or directly to the nation's highest court.
"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 panel wrote. Gay marriage in Utah likely will remain on hold pending the appeal.
The decision gives increased momentum to a legal cause that already compiled an impressive winning streak in the lower courts after the Supreme Court last year struck down the federal Defense of Marriage Act. Since then, 14 federal judges have issued rulings siding with gay marriage advocates.
Two of the most striking of those decisions were in the conservative states of Utah and Oklahoma, which saw their voter-approved gay marriage bans overturned in December and January, respectively. In Utah, more than 1,000 same-sex couples wed before the Supreme Court issued a stay.
The 10th Circuit panel considered both cases. It did not rule on the Oklahoma ban.
Though the Utah and Oklahoma cases were closely watched, it is unclear whether they will be the first to reach the Supreme Court. The high court could choose from cases moving through five other federal appellate courts, and wouldn't consider a case until next year at the earliest.
Attorneys representing Utah and Oklahoma argued voters have the right to define marriage in their states. Gay rights lawyers countered that they cannot do so in a way that deprives gay people of their fundamental rights.
The appellate ruling comes 42 years after the Supreme Court refused to hear a case of two men who were refused a marriage license in Minnesota, finding there was no legal issue for the justices to consider, and just 10 years after 11 states voted to outlaw gay marriage.
Now same-sex marriage is legal in 19 states and the District of Columbia. Recent polls show a majority of Americans support it.