By Bill Cotterell
TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (Reuters) - Same-sex marriages may begin in Florida in early January after the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit on Wednesday declined to further stay a lower court ruling that overturned the state's ban on gay weddings.
The appellate ruling would permit same-sex couples to tie the knot after the stay expires at the end of the day on Jan. 5, 2015.
State officials can appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court. Gay marriage is legal in 35 states, not counting Florida.
While gay marriage advocates have had the upper hand in the courts in the past year, a Cincinnati-based federal appeals court on Nov. 6 became the first to uphold gay marriage bans.
That decision, by the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, created a split within the courts, increasing the chances the Supreme Court will rule on the issue.
“I don’t see what they can do at this point to stop it," said Don Price Johnston of Miami, who was involved in one of several Florida cases in which judges have struck down the ban, approved by Florida voters in 2008.
The appellate decision stemmed from an August ruling by U.S. District Judge Robert L. Hinkle of Florida's Northern District in Tallahassee, who was the first federal judge to rule against the state's same-sex marriage ban.
Hinkle found the ban violated equal protection and due process protections under the U.S. Constitution.
Florida state officials appealed his decision, as well as state court rulings similarly overturning the marriage ban.
State Attorney General Pam Bondi could not immediately be reached for comment.
In a filing last month, Bondi argued that the U.S. Constitution "does not prohibit Florida or its voters" from choosing to define marriage as between a man and a woman.
“As the United States Supreme Court has recognized, states have the virtually exclusive authority to define and regulate marriage," she wrote. "Principles of federalism leave the choice to the states."
Cases involving bans in Kentucky, Michigan, Ohio, Tennessee and Louisiana are pending at the U.S. high court, which will likely decide by the end of the year whether to hear one or more of them.
If the court does take a case, that would likely lead to a national decision, issued by the end of June, that would determine once and for all if states can ban same-sex marriage.
(Writing by Letitia Stein in Tampa. Additional reporting by Lawrence Hurley in Washington, D.C. and Zachary Fagenson in Miami; Editing by David Adams, Sandra Maler and Steve Orlofsky)