U.S. court won’t extend Florida gay marriage stay

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A federal appeals court refused Wednesday to extend past Jan. 5 a hold on a ruling that declared Florida’s ban on gay marriage unconstitutional, possibly bringing same-sex weddings one step closer to reality.

The Atlanta-based 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals also said Wednesday it will consider the substance of the state’s appeal on an expedited basis. Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi wants the court to reverse a Tallahassee federal judge’s decision in August that would strike down the same-sex marriage ban.

In that ruling, U.S. District Judge Robert Hinkle said the Jan. 5 date would give enough time for appeals to be considered before any Florida marriage licenses are issued to same-sex couples. If the appeals court were to reverse Hinkle’s decision, the date would become irrelevant.

Still, Equality Florida Chief Executive Officer Nadine Smith hailed Wednesday’s single-page ruling as a victory, noting that if the stay expires, gay couples could begin applying for marriage licenses after Jan. 5.

“Every day of delay is another day of harm experienced by thousands of loving and committed same-sex couples in Florida,” she said. “Now it’s time to break out the wedding bells. Florida is ready for the freedom to marry.”

Bondi spokeswoman Jennifer Meale said officials are reviewing the decision. One of the state’s options would be to ask the U.S. Supreme Court to extend the stay past the date as appeals are pending.

Like many other judges, Hinkle ruled that the gay marriage ban added to the state constitution by voters in 2008 violates the U.S. Constitution’s guarantee of equal protection. Most federal appeals courts have adopted a similar view, except for a recent decision by 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Cincinnati upholding the right of four states to decide whether to allow gay marriage. More than half the states allow gay marriage.

It’s unclear when the 11th Circuit will rule on the substance of the state’s appeal. Ultimately it will likely take the U.S. Supreme Court to decide the issue nationally, particularly since there is now a split among the circuit courts.

Judges in four Florida counties have also declared the same-sex marriage ban unconstitutional, but those decisions are also being appealed by Bondi and no marriage licenses have been issued.

Republished with permission of the Associated Press.