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LISA LEFF 02/ 7/12 04:10 PM ETAssociated Press AP via: Huff Post

SAN FRANCISCO — A federal appeals court on Tuesday declared California’s same-sex marriage ban unconstitutional but agreed to give sponsors of the bitterly contested, voter-approved law time to appeal the ruling before ordering the state to resume allowing gay couples to wed.

The three-judge panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled 2-1 that a lower court judge correctly interpreted the U.S. Constitution and Supreme Court precedents when he declared in 2010 that Proposition 8 – a response to an earlier state court decision that legalized gay marriage – was a violation of the civil rights of gays and lesbians.

“Proposition 8 serves no purpose, and has no effect, other than to lessen the status and human dignity of gays and lesbians in California, and to officially reclassify their relationships and families as inferior to those of opposite-sex couples,” states the opinion written by Judge Stephen Reinhardt, one of the court’s most liberal judges.

However, the appeals panel took pains to note that its decision applies only to California, even though the court has jurisdiction in nine western states. California is the only one of those states where the ability for gays to marry was granted then rescinded, the court noted in its narrowly crafted opinion.

“Whether under the Constitution same-sex couples may ever be denied the right to marry, a right that has long been enjoyed by opposite-sex couples, is an important and highly controversial question,” the court said. “We need not and do not answer the broader question in this case.”

The ruling will not take effect until the deadline passes for Proposition 8’s backers to appeal to a larger panel of the 9th Circuit. Lawyers for the coalition of conservative religious groups that sponsored the measure said they have not decided if they will seek a 9th Circuit rehearing or file an appeal directly to the U.S. Supreme Court.

“We are not surprised that this Hollywood-orchestrated attack on marriage – tried in San Francisco – turned out this way. But we are confident that the expressed will of the American people in favor of marriage will be upheld at the Supreme Court,” said Brian Raum, senior counsel for the Alliance Defense Fund, a Christian legal aid group based in Arizona that helped defend Proposition 8.

One legal analyst said the U.S. Supreme Court might not agree to take up the case on appeal because the appeals court focused its decision exclusively on California’s ban.

“The ruling is on the narrowest ground possible,” said University of Santa Clara constitutional law professor Margaret Russell.

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