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U.S. court rejects stay in Utah pro-gay marriage ruling

NEW YORK- A federal appeals court on Sunday declined to stop officials in Utah from issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples following a judge's ruling last week that overturned the state's ban on gay marriage.

Utah Governor Gary Herbert asked for an emergency stay to prevent marriage licenses from being issued to same-sex couples after U.S. District Judge Robert Shelby on Friday ruled the ban unconstitutional. The parties are due back before Shelby on Monday, as the state begins to appeal his ruling.

The ruling, which made Utah the 18th state to allow same-sex nuptials, marked a major victory for gay rights activists in a conservative state where the Mormon Church wields considerable influence.

It also touched off a rush to the altar by gay couples, especially in Salt Lake City, where a festive atmosphere broke out in the county government building that played host to a string of impromptu weddings - including that of a state senator to his longtime partner.

Shelby found in the case brought by three gay couples that Utah's state constitutional amendment defining marriage as a union between one man and one woman violated the rights of gay couples to due process and equal protection under the U.S. Constitution.

"I am very disappointed an activist federal judge is attempting to override the will of the people of Utah," Herbert said in a statement after the ruling.

Advocates of gay marriage have won repeated victories in recent years as a growing portion of the American electorate has taken a more favorable view of same-sex relationships. A year and a half ago, just six states and the District of Columbia recognized same-sex marriage.

In June, the U.S. Supreme Court delivered a landmark victory for gay rights by forcing the federal government to recognize same-sex marriages in states where it is legal and paving the way for gay marriage in California.

On Thursday, the New Mexico Supreme Court ruled to allow same-sex marriage across the state. In November, Hawaii and Illinois governors signed bills to legalize same-sex weddings.

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Samantha Christensen, left, and Elise Larsen apply for a marriage license in the Salt Lake County Clerk's Office in Salt Lake City on Friday, Dec. 20. A federal judge ruled on Friday that Utah's ban on same-sex marriage is unconstitutional.

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