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US appeals court rules Utah's gay marriage ban unconstitutional, a first for an appeals court

Peggy Tomsic, attorney for the three couples who brought the lawsuit against the Utah's gay marriage ban, speaks during a news conference in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, June 25, 2014. On Wednesday, a federal appeals court ruled that states must allow gay couples to marry, finding the Constitution protects same-sex relationships. The decision from a three-judge panel in Denver upheld a lower court ruling that struck down Utah's gay marriage ban. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)

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Peggy Tomsic, attorney for the three couples who brought the lawsuit against the Utah's gay marriage ban, speaks during a news conference in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, June 25, 2014. On Wednesday, a federal appeals court ruled that states must allow gay couples to marry, finding the Constitution protects same-sex relationships. The decision from a three-judge panel in Denver upheld a lower court ruling that struck down Utah's gay marriage ban. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)

DENVER - A U.S. appeals court on Wednesday ruled for the first time that states must allow gay couples to marry, finding the Constitution protects same-sex relationships and moving the issue one step closer to a possible Supreme Court decision that could affect the country at large.

Gay rights supporters have seen a remarkable winning streak in courts across the country in recent months.

The latest decision upheld a lower court ruling that struck down Utah's gay marriage ban. However, the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals panel immediately put the ruling on hold so it could be appealed, either to the entire 10th Circuit or directly to the nation's highest court.

"All I can say is that we are thrilled," said Kody Partridge, one of the plaintiffs.

The office of Utah's attorney general said it plans to appeal the ruling to the Supreme Court. The office also left open the possibility of requesting a review from the full panel of judges at the 10th Circuit.

The three-judge appeals panel found that states cannot deprive people of the fundamental right to marry simply because they want to be wedded to someone of the same sex. The panel found it "wholly illogical to believe that state recognition of the love and commitment between same-sex couples will alter the most intimate and personal decisions of opposite-sex couples."

On Wednesday afternoon, the couples named in the appeal hugged, cried and exchanged kisses at a news conference. Plaintiff Derek Kitchen said he and his partner, Moudi Sbeity, are "so proud to be a part of history."

The decision gives increased momentum to a legal cause that already compiled an impressive winning streak in the lower courts after the Supreme Court last year struck down the federal Defence of Marriage Act. Since then, 16 federal judges have issued rulings siding with gay marriage advocates.

The latest of those rulings was in Indiana, where a federal judge on Wednesday struck down that state's same-sex marriage ban in a ruling that immediately allows gay couples to wed. The Indiana attorney general's office said it will appeal.

Evan Wolfson, president of Freedom to Marry, said Utah's legal victory was sweeter because of where it originated — a conservative, deeply religious state in the heart of the mountain west.

Gay marriage opponents, meanwhile, have vowed to continue their fight. Along with the Catholic Church, several other major denominations remain adamant in opposing same-sex marriage.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, based in Utah, said in a statement on its website Wednesday that the church maintains marriage should be between a man and a woman but "all people should be treated with respect."

The appellate ruling on Utah comes 42 years after the Supreme Court refused to hear a case of two men who were refused a marriage license in Minnesota, finding there was no legal issue for the justices to consider, and just 10 years after 11 states voted to outlaw gay marriage.

Now same-sex marriage is legal in 19 states and the Washington capital district. Recent polls show a majority of Americans support it.

Two of the most striking lower court rulings were in the conservative states of Utah and Oklahoma, which saw their voter-approved gay marriage bans overturned in December and January, respectively. In Utah, more than 1,000 same-sex couples wed before the Supreme Court issued a stay.

The 10th Circuit panel did not rule on the Oklahoma ban.

Though the Utah and Oklahoma cases have been closely watched, it is unclear whether they will be the first to reach the Supreme Court. The high court could choose from cases moving through five other federal appellate courts, and wouldn't consider a case until next year at the earliest.

Attorneys representing Utah and Oklahoma argued voters have the right to define marriage in their states. Gay rights lawyers countered that they cannot do so in a way that deprives gay people of their fundamental rights.

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Online:

10th Circuit panel's ruling, https://www.ca10.uscourts.gov/opinions/13/13-4178.pdf

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