By Daniel Wallis
DENVER (Reuters) - A U.S. appeals court on Wednesday found a gay marriage ban in conservative Utah violated the Constitution, saying the heavily Mormon state could not bar same-sex nuptials in a ruling that capped a day of victories for gay couples.
The Utah ruling by the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver marked the first regional appeals court ruling on gay marriage since the U.S. Supreme Court forced the federal government a year ago to extend benefits to same-sex couples married in states that allow gay marriage.
The ruling 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.
The court said it was staying its verdict in anticipation of an appeal. In Utah, the attorney general's office said it was reviewing the decision and intended to file an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Supporters of gay marriage in the conservative state, where the Mormon church wields substantial political and social influence, planned a celebratory rally on Wednesday night in Salt Lake City.
Utah briefly became the 18th U.S. state where marriage rights were extended to same-sex couples when a federal district judge ruled in December 2013 that a state ban on gay matrimony was unconstitutional.
That decision was put on hold by the U.S. Supreme Court pending appeals, but not before more than 1,300 gay and lesbian couples tied the knot.
Utah lawmakers who oppose gay marriage had argued that the state's ban, known as Amendment 3, was approved by voters and that same-sex marriages 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 in its ruling.
Separately, U.S. District Judge Richard Young in Indianapolis said Indiana's ban on same-sex marriage violated the Constitution's due process and equal protection clauses, and he ordered officials to start issuing marriage licenses.
And a legal battle over Florida's gay marriage ban intensified this week as state Attorney General Pam Bondi said she will defend the measures approved by voters in 2008 in challenges to be heard soon in Orlando and Miami Beach.
(Additional reporting by Jennifer Dobner in Salt Lake City, Jon Herskovitz in Austin, and David Adams in Miami; Editing by Doina Chiacu and Jim Loney)