By Daniel Wallis
DENVER (Reuters) - 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 ordered the federal government to 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, a Republican, 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 Utah, 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 to allow gay marriage when a federal district judge ruled in December that a state ban on gay matrimony was unconstitutional.
That decision was ultimately put on hold by the U.S. Supreme Court pending appeals but not before more than 1,300 gay and lesbian couples married. Their status remains in limbo.
'FREEDOM OF CHOICE'
Utah lawmakers who oppose gay marriage had argued that a state constitutional amendment banning such unions was approved by voters and that same-sex unions 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, adding 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, the panel 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, a U.S. district judge in Indianapolis said Indiana's gay marriage ban was unconstitutional and ordered officials to start issuing marriage licenses.
In Marion County, home to Indianapolis, a spokeswoman for the clerk’s office said the first same-sex couple arrived moments after the decision, and about 50 marriage licenses had been issued by mid-afternoon.
Hundreds of people were still waiting in line in Marion County, and other counties were also issuing licenses to gay couples. Indiana’s attorney general swiftly asked for a stay of the ruling by U.S. District Judge Richard Young, pending appeal.
Meanwhile, in Louisiana, a federal judge heard arguments in a case brought by a gay man seeking the benefits married couples enjoy.
(Reporting by Daniel Wallis; Additional reporting by Jennifer Dobner in Salt Lake City, Susan Guyett in Indianapolis, Jon Herskovitz in Austin, and Lisa Bose McDermott in Texarkana; Editing by Doina Chiacu, Jim Loney and Eric Beech)