A day after the Supreme Court declined to hear gay marriage appeals and effectively made same-sex marriage legal in 30 states, a federal appeals court struck down gay marriage bans in a decision that could soon allow gay and lesbian couples to wed in five more states.
The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco invalidated bans in Idaho and Nevada, and the ruling might well extend to three other states in the 9th Circuit that do not permit same-sex couples to marry: Alaska, Arizona and Montana.
It remained to be seen Tuesday whether the court would put its decision on hold or, if not, whether gay marriage opponents would ask the Supreme Court to keep the ruling from taking effect.
There are four other federal appeals courts in the Midwest and South that have a more conservative makeup and have yet to rule on same-sex marriage.
The justices may find it harder to stay out of the gay marriage issue if a federal appeals court upholds same-sex marriage bans and parts company with the other appellate courts that have ruled so far.
Courts based in Atlanta, Cincinnati, New Orleans and St. Louis could produce anti-gay marriage rulings. Of those, the Cincinnati-based 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals could rule anytime in cases considering anti-gay marriage laws in Kentucky, Michigan, Ohio and Tennessee.
Such a ruling, if it comes quickly, could be appealed to the Supreme Court in time to be argued and decided by late June.
The New Orleans-based 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals is handling cases from Louisiana, in which a federal judge upheld the state's ban, and Texas, where the anti-gay marriage law was struck down.
Florida's appeal of a federal judge's ruling in favor of same-sex marriage will be heard by the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta.
No gay marriage cases have yet been decided by federal courts in the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals stretching from North Dakota to Arkansas. But a state court judge in Arkansas has struck down the state ban.
In 2006, the 8th Circuit upheld a gay marriage ban in Nebraska.
Once the 9th Circuit ruling goes into force, same-sex marriage would be legal in 35 states and the District of Columbia and against the law in 15.
Those numbers would be similar to the division among the states when the Supreme Court earlier got rid of legal segregation of public schools, bans on interracial marriage and anti-sodomy laws that targeted gay people.
Al Jazeera and The Associated Press