A federal appeals court ruled Wednesday 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 three-judge panel in Denver ruled 2-1 that states cannot deprive people of the fundamental right to marry simply because they want to be wedded to someone of the same sex.
The judges added they don't want to brand as intolerant those who oppose gay marriage, but they said there is no reasonable objection to the practice.
"It is wholly illogical to believe that state recognition of love and commitment of same-sex couples will alter the most intimate and personal decisions of opposite-sex couples," the judges wrote, addressing arguments that the ruling could undermine traditional marriage.
The decision by the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals panel upheld a lower court ruling that struck down Utah's gay marriage ban. It becomes law in the six states covered by the court: Colorado, Kansas, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Utah and Wyoming. However, gay marriages won't be happening in the near future because the panel immediately put its ruling on hold pending an appeal.
The Utah attorney general's office said in a statement it will file a petition with the Supreme Court seeking a review of the panel's ruling. It also left open the possibility of requesting a review from the full panel of 10th Circuit judges.
"Although the Court's 2-1 split decision does not favor the State, we are pleased that the ruling has been issued and takes us one step closer to reaching certainty and finality for all Utahns on such an important issue with a decision from the highest court," the statement said.
Plaintiff Kody Partridge, meanwhile, said she and her wife, Laurie Wood, were thrilled about the ruling.
"This is such as historic thing, not just for Utah but for Laurie and me" and plaintiffs across the country, Partridge said. "This is a big day."
The decision gives increased momentum to a legal cause that already has compiled an impressive record in the lower courts after the Supreme Court last year struck down the federal Defense of Marriage Act. Since then, 16 federal judges have issued rulings siding with gay marriage advocates.
The latest of those rulings was in Indiana, where a federal judge struck down that state's same-sex marriage ban in a decision Wednesday that immediately allowed gay couples to wed. The Indiana and Utah decisions came just one day ahead of the one-year anniversary of the landmark Supreme Court decision striking down part of a federal anti-gay marriage law.
Evan Wolfson, president of Freedom to Marry, said Utah's legal victory was sweeter because of where it originated -- a conservative, deeply religious state in the heart of the mountain west.
"What is so powerful here is that we have the first federal appellate court and ... it's a case coming out of Utah affirming in the strongest, clearest, boldest terms that the Constitution guarantees the freedom to marry and equal protection for all Americans and all means all, including gay couples," he said.
Gay marriage opponents, meanwhile, have vowed to continue their fight.
"While judges can, by judicial fiat, declare same-sex `marriage' legal, they will never be able to make it right," said Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council Perkins. "The courts, for all their power, can't overturn natural law."
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints said in a statement on its website Wednesday that the church maintains marriage should be between a man and a woman but believes "all people should be treated with respect."
Republican Gov. Gary Herbert in a statement said he was disappointed by the decision and believes states should determine their own laws regarding same-sex marriage. He said he hopes the U.S. Supreme Court will rule on the issue to provide clarity.
In his dissent, Justice Paul J. Kelly Jr. said the 10th Circuit was overstepping its authority and that states should be able to decide who can marry.
"We should resist the temptation to become philosopher-kings, imposing our views under the guise of the Fourteenth Amendment," he wrote.
More than 1,000 Utah same-sex couples wed in December after the initial ruling in the case, before the Supreme Court issued a stay. Along with the Utah case, the 10th Circuit panel considered a challenge to the Oklahoma ban. It did not immediately issue a decision in that case Wednesday.
Oklahoma plaintiff Sharon Baldwin said moments after the Utah ruling that she is optimistic because the two cases are so similar.
"We're thrilled for the plaintiffs in Utah," Baldwin said. "We think this is wonderful news, and we're excited to see our ruling coming soon."
Though the Utah and Oklahoma cases have been closely watched, it is unclear if one of them 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.