By Maura Dolan
A federal appeals court Tuesday unanimously struck down gay marriage bans in the West, paving the way for same-sex nuptials in five more states.
If the decision by the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals is upheld, same-sex couples would be able to marry in 35 states and the District of Columbia.
The court specifically rejected bans in Idaho and Nevada, but the ruling applies to all the circuit's Western states and would end prohibitions against gay marriage in Alaska, Arizona and Montana.
"The lessons of our constitutional history are clear: Inclusion strengthens, rather than weakens, our most important institutions," Judge Stephen Reinhardt wrote for a three-judge panel. "When same-sex couples are married, just as when opposite-sex couples are married, they serve as models of loving commitment to all."
The ruling came one day after the U.S. Supreme Court let stand other circuit court holdings in favor of same-sex marriage. The court's refusal to hear appeals in those cases increased the number of states where gays could marry to 30 plus the District of Columbia.
"I am breathless, and this is only Tuesday," said Jon Davidson, legal director of Lambda Legal, which represented gay couples in the Nevada case. "It feels like we are in a race to the finish line."
Evan Wolfson, president of Freedom to Marry, expressed hope that "other federal appellate courts will move swiftly to end the disparity and unfair denial that too many loving and committed couples in the 15 remaining states endure."
Todd Dvorak, a spokesman for the Idaho attorney general's office, said gays would not be able to wed in Idaho until the 9th Circuit removed a hold or stay on a lower court's decision in favor of same-sex marriage. He said Idaho had not yet decided whether to appeal.
"We are reviewing the decision by the court and assessing all of Idaho's legal options in this case," Atty. Gen. Lawrence Wasden said in a statement.
Nevada officials refused to defend the ban, concluding they would lose. Gay rights lawyers said there might not be anyone with legal authority to appeal on behalf of Nevada.
Losing parties in the 9th Circuit have 30 days to request Supreme Court review. Given the Supreme Court's decision Monday not to intervene, it is likely the high court will decline to take up the issue unless another circuit upholds a ban, creating a split.
That split could come any day. The U.S. 6th Circuit Court of Appeals in Ohio is expected to decide soon on bans affecting Ohio, Kentucky, Michigan and Tennessee. During a hearing, the 6th Circuit appeared to be leaning in favor of the bans.
The U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans, perhaps the most conservative in the country, also will soon consider a ruling upholding a marriage ban in Louisiana. The 5th Circuit decision would apply to Mississippi and Texas as well as Louisiana. The U.S. 11th Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta, covering the rest of the Deep South, may follow suit.
California already permits gays to wed and was not directly affected by Tuesday's decision.
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