DENVER (AP) -- A federal appeals court ruled Wednesday that states must allow gay couples to marry, finding the Constitution protects same-sex relationships and putting a remarkable legal winning streak across the country one step closer to the U.S. Supreme Court.

The three-judge panel in Denver ruled 2-1 that states cannot deprive people of the fundamental right to marry simply because they want to be wedded to someone of the same sex.

Plaintiffs Moudi Sbeity, left, and his partner Derek Kitchen, one of three couples who brought a lawsuit against Utah's gay marriage ban, celebrate as they arrive at their lawyer's office in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, June 25, 2014. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)
Plaintiffs Moudi Sbeity, left, and his partner Derek Kitchen, one of three couples who brought a lawsuit against Utah's gay marriage ban, celebrate as they arrive at their lawyer's office in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, June 25, 2014. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)

The judges added they don't want to brand as intolerant those who oppose gay marriage, but said there is no reasonable objection to the practice.

"It is wholly illogical to believe that state recognition of love and commitment of same-sex couples will alter the most intimate and personal decisions of opposite-sex couples," they wrote, addressing arguments that the ruling could undermine traditional marriage.

The decision by the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals panel upheld a lower court ruling that struck down Utah's gay marriage ban. However, the panel immediately put Wednesday's 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. She and her wife, Laurie Wood, were working in the garden when they heard the news.

"This is such as historic thing, not just for Utah but for Laurie and me" and plaintiffs across the country, Partridge said. "This is a big day."

The decision gives increased momentum to a legal cause that already has compiled an impressive record in the lower courts after the Supreme Court last year struck down the federal Defense 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 decision that immediately allowed gay couples to wed. The Indiana and Utah decisions came just one day ahead of the one-year anniversary of the landmark Supreme Court decision that struck down part of a federal anti-gay marriage law.

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.

"What is so powerful here is that we have the first federal appellate court and ... it's a case coming out of Utah affirming in the strongest, clearest, boldest terms that the Constitution guarantees the freedom to marry and equal protection for all Americans and all means all, including gay couples," he said.

John Mejia, legal director of the ACLU of Utah, also lauded the decision, calling it a "huge boost" to the gay marriage movement.

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 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."

Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, argued the court overstepped its bounds.

"While judges can, by judicial fiat, declare same-sex `marriage' legal, they will never be able to make it right," Perkins said in a statement. "The courts, for all their power, can't overturn natural law."

The Utah-based Sutherland Institute called the ruling disappointing and said it wrongly overrides the will of Utah voters.

In his dissent Wednesday, 10th Circuit Justice Paul J. Kelly Jr. said the court was overstepping its authority and that states should be able to decide who can marry.

"We should resist the temptation to become philosopher-kings, imposing our views under the guise of the Fourteenth Amendment," he wrote.

More than 1,000 Utah same-sex couples wed in December after the initial ruling in the case before the Supreme Court issued a stay. Along with the Utah case, the 10th Circuit panel considered a challenge to the Oklahoma ban. It did not immediately issue a decision on that case Wednesday.

Sharon Baldwin, one of the Oklahoma plaintiffs, said moments after the Utah ruling that she is optimistic because the two cases are so similar.

"We're thrilled for the plaintiffs in Utah," she said. "We think this is wonderful news, and we're excited to see our ruling coming soon."

Though the Utah and Oklahoma cases have been closely watched, it is unclear whether one of them 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.

The appellate ruling 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 District of Columbia. Recent polls show a majority of Americans support it.



Ruling from 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals,


Associated Press writers Lisa Leff in San Francisco and Kristi Eaton in Oklahoma City contributed to this report.