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, 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.
The Mormon church, which wields big political and social influence in Utah, said in a statement it had always supported traditional marriage and hoped the nation's highest court would uphold that view.
Supporters of same-sex marriage gathered at a park in the shadow of the Mormon church's downtown Salt Lake City headquarters Wednesday evening to celebrate.
"It's one step closer to equal rights," said Maggie Snyder, 60, who married her 73-year-old partner, Kristen Reis, last fall in California. "We never thought that we would live to see this happen."
The ruling also prompted the clerk of Boulder County, Colorado, to begin issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples. The state's attorney general, however, said they were invalid.
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 link the right to marry to issues surrounding procreation.
"We cannot embrace the contention that children raised by opposite-sex parents fare better than children raised by same-sex parents," the panel said.
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 invalidating laws against interracial marriage, saying tradition was not at issue.
At least 19 U.S. states and the District of Columbia already allow gay marriage, while nine additional states including Utah and Indiana are awaiting final appeal court decisions after lower courts ruled in favor of such unions.
A U.S. district judge in Indiana ruled that state's gay marriage ban as unconstitutional on Wednesday and ordered officials to start issuing marriage licenses.
In Marion County, home to Indianapolis, the clerk's office said the first same-sex couple arrived moments after the decision. By 9:45 pm., officials had issued 219 licenses and married more than 150 couples.
Indiana's attorney general asked for a stay of the ruling by U.S. District Judge Richard Young, pending appeal.
(Reporting by Daniel Wallis; Additional reporting by Jennifer Dobner in Salt Lake City, Susan Guyett in Indianapolis, Jon Herskovitz in Austin, Lisa Bose McDermott in Texarkana, David Bailey in Minneapolis and Keith Coffman in Denver; Editing by Eric Beech, Sandra Maler, Sharon Bernstein and Ken Wills)