TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (Reuters) - Same-sex marriages could begin in Florida in early January after the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals declined on Wednesday to further stay a lower court ruling that overturned the state's ban on gay weddings.
The appellate court ruling would permit same-sex couples to tie the knot when the stay expires after Jan. 5. State officials can appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.
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.
Gay marriage is legal in 35 states, not counting Florida.
The appellate decision stemmed from an August ruling by U.S. District Judge Robert Hinkle of Florida's Northern District in Tallahassee, who was the first federal judge to find the state's same-sex marriage ban unconstitutional.
Florida state officials appealed his decision, as well as state court rulings striking down the marriage ban.
"It's really unfortunate that the courts are capitulating to an agenda and not really doing what’s in the best interests of children, families and the common good of society," said John Stemberger, president of Florida Family Policy Council, which organized the campaign for the ban.
In a filing last month, state Attorney General Pam 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.
Bondi could not immediately be reached for comment.
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.
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, Steve Orlofsky and Peter Cooney