By Keith Coffman and Daniel Wallis
DENVER (Reuters) - Boulder County in Colorado defiantly issued marriage licenses to gay couples on Thursday, emboldened by a regional U.S. appeals court's landmark same-sex marriage ruling, although the state attorney general warned such nuptials would not be valid.
On Wednesday, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit in Denver ruled that Utah cannot ban same-sex couples from marrying. The decision pushed the issue of gay marriage a step nearer the U.S. Supreme Court.
The appeals court, whose decisions apply to six states including Colorado, put its ruling on hold in anticipation of a legal challenge by Utah. Yet within hours of the verdict, the Boulder County, Colorado clerk's office began issuing marriage licenses to gay couples.
County Clerk Hillary Hall said she acted immediately because same-sex couples across the state had waited a long time to have civil authorities recognize their right to marry. Colorado Attorney General John Suthers said the state's constitutional prohibition on same-sex marriages remained in effect.
Suthers noted that the appeal's court decision "has not gone into effect even in Utah, let alone in Colorado." He said the marriage licenses issued to same-sex couples in Boulder "are invalid."
On Thursday, Hall questioned what legal authority the attorney general had to declare the licenses as void.
"It seems to me that, if someone, even the attorney general, wanted to challenge a marriage license issued by an elected county clerk in Colorado, they would need to do that in court," Hall said in a statement.
"Given the 10th Circuit's recent decision and the numerous other cases on this issue, I would be surprised if a judge in Colorado were willing to invalidate a marriage license simply because the parties to the marriage were the same sex."
An office spokeswoman said two licenses were issued Wednesday, a further 15 by mid-morning on Thursday, and that more likely would be given out during the day.
BOULDER ALONE IN ISSUING LICENSES
Boulder, home to the University of Colorado at the foothills of the Rocky Mountains, has a history of being an outlier on gay marriage. In 1975, its county clerk issued marriage licenses to several gay couples, before being ordered to stop by the then-attorney general who ruled such unions were illegal.
Hall said the gay couples she spoke to knew of the attorney general's opposition, and she understood why some couples wanted to wait. "But I also understand the decision of those who do not want to wait even a single day to exercise their fundamental right," she said.
The 2-1 verdict by the 10th Circuit followed a series of decisions by federal district judges across the nation striking down state gay marriage bans as unconstitutional in rulings that could substantially expand U.S. gay marriage rights if upheld.
It marked the first time a regional appeals court has ruled on gay marriage since the Supreme Court forced the federal government to extend benefits to legally married same-sex couples a year ago.
At issue for couples in Boulder is whether the stay of the 10th Circuit's ruling is interpreted as applying to all the region's states, or only Utah.
No other clerk's office in Colorado or elsewhere within the jurisdiction of the 10th Circuit immediately announced plans to follow Boulder's move. The Circuit includes Utah, Colorado, Oklahoma, Kansas and Wyoming, as well as New Mexico, which already permits gay nuptials.
(Reporting by Keith Coffman and Daniel Wallis; Editing by Jim Loney and David Gregorio)