DENVER (AP) — 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 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," they 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. However, the panel immediately put Wednesday's ruling on hold so it could be appealed, either to the entire 10th Circuit or directly to the nation's highest court.
"All I can say is that we are thrilled," said Kody Partridge, one of the Utah plaintiffs. She was working in the garden with her wife, Laurie Wood, when they heard 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 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, 16 federal judges have issued rulings siding with gay marriage advocates.
The latest of those rulings was in Indiana, where a federal judge on Wednesday struck down that state's same-sex marriage ban in a ruling that immediately allows gay couples to wed.
Two of the most striking lower court rulings 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.
Sharon Baldwin, one of the plaintiffs in the Oklahoma case, said moments after the Utah ruling that she felt positive because the two cases are so similar.
"We're thrilled for the plaintiffs in Utah," she said. "We think this is wonderful news, and we're excited to see our ruling coming soon."
Gay marriage opponents, meanwhile, have vowed to continue their fight. Along with the Catholic Church, several other major denominations remain adamant in opposing same-sex marriage.
"While judges can, by judicial fiat, declare same-sex 'marriage' legal, they will never be able to make it right," Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, said in a statement. "The courts, for all their power, can't overturn natural law."
In his dissent Wednesday, 10th Circuit Justice Paul J. Kelly Jr. said the court 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.
Though the Utah and Oklahoma cases have been 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.