The U.S. Supreme Court on Friday refused to block gay marriages in Florida, the latest of about three dozen states allowing same-sex weddings.
In a one-paragraph order, the court decided not to step into the Florida case. A federal judge previously declared Florida's ban on gay marriage unconstitutional and said same-sex marriage licenses could start being issued in the state after Jan. 5 unless the Supreme Court intervened.
"This is a thrilling day for all Florida families," Daniel Tilley, an attorney for the American Civil Liberties of Florida, said in a statement. "As we explained to the court, every day that the ban remains in place, couples are suffering real harms. We are grateful that the court recognized that, and that as a result, those days are finally coming to an end."
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Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi, who has fought to uphold the state's ban, said in a statement that her goal was "to have uniformity" throughout the state while various legal challenges were pursued in both state and federal courts.
"Nonetheless, the Supreme Court has now spoken, and the stay will end on Jan. 5," Bondi said.
In August, U.S. District Judge Robert Hinkle declared the state's ban unconstitutional, but he put his ruling on hold until after Jan. 5 pending appeals.
Like many other judges and appellate courts, Hinkle ruled the ban approved by voters in 2008 violates the U.S. Constitution's guarantee of equal protection.
Bondi had tried to persuade a federal appeals court in Atlanta to keep Hinkle's ruling on hold. The appeals court rejected the request so Bondi went to U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, who oversees emergency appeals from Florida, Alabama and Georgia.
The entire court wound up considering the petition. The order said only Thomas and Justice Antonin Scalia would have kept the stay in place.
Bondi said if the ban was struck down, some, but not all, county clerks in Florida would begin issuing marriage licenses, causing confusion throughout the state. She said that would happen because the lawsuit against Florida's ban only named the clerk in tiny Washington County in the Panhandle.
The state clerks association has warned its members that they could be risking misdemeanor prosecution under state law if they issue licenses before the question is fully settled. It is unclear how many plan to take that advice.
Tilley said his group expects "public officials in all of Florida's 67 counties to understand the significance of this development and look forward to full implementation of Judge Hinkle's decision across our state."
State judges in four South Florida counties have declared the same-sex marriage ban unconstitutional, but those decisions are also being appealed by Bondi and no marriage licenses have been issued.
On the federal level, the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Cincinnati has upheld the right of four states to decide whether to allow gay marriage.