SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — A federal appeals court's finding that Utah's same-sex marriage ban is unconstitutional marks the most important ruling for the gay marriage movement since last summer's landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision that struck down part of a federal anti-gay marriage law.
Gay rights activists have won 16 lower court cases over the past year. After Wednesday's ruling, expectations are higher than ever that the Supreme Court eventually will decide gays can marry in every state. Here are some key things to know about the gay marriage movement and where it's headed:
The ruling by a three-judge panel of the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver becomes law in the six states covered by the court: Colorado, Kansas, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Utah and Wyoming. But gay marriages won't be happening in those states — at least not right away — because the 10th Circuit immediately put its 2-1 decision on hold pending an appeal.
The Utah attorney general's office plans to appeal but said Wednesday it is assessing whether to go directly to the nation's highest court or ask the entire 10th Circuit to review the ruling.
IS THIS THE ONLY APPEALS COURT WITH A GAY MARRIAGE CASE?
No. Judges in a total of six federal appeals courts and one state appeals court are hearing appeals of lower court rulings that overturned gay marriage bans or ordered states to recognize out-of-state marriages. The 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals heard arguments about Virginia's ban in early May, and a ruling is expected soon. The other four appeals courts have yet to hear arguments.
WHAT TRIGGERED THE SERIES OF PRO-GAY MARRIAGE DECISIONS?
The Supreme Court last year found that the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act that forbade the federal government from recognizing same-sex marriage improperly deprived gay couples of due process. That ruling came as polls showed a majority of Americans now support gay marriage.
Lower-court judges have repeatedly cited that Supreme Court decision when striking down same-sex marriage bans.
So far, federal and state judges have ruled against bans in Arkansas, Idaho, Michigan, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Texas, Utah, Virginia, Wisconsin and Indiana. They have ordered Kentucky, Indiana, Ohio and Tennessee to recognize same-sex marriages from other states.
Gay marriage is legal in 19 states and the District of Columbia.
WHEN DOES THE ISSUE RETURN TO THE SUPREME COURT?
Legal experts say the Supreme Court eventually will take a gay marriage case after one or more appeals court rulings, but that won't happen until 2015 at the earliest. And the high court is under no obligation to take up the issue. The three-judge 10th Circuit panel is the first to rule out of six circuits hearing appeals.
In any of the appellate cases, the losing party can appeal directly to the Supreme Court, or first ask for the entire appellate court to review the ruling.
It's unclear which case would reach the high court first. The Supreme Court also could hold off and see how the nation's appellate courts rule. It often waits until there is a conflict between appellate courts before taking a case.
Riccardi reported from Denver.