DENVER – For years, gay rights activists in Colorado repeatedly said it would only be a matter of time before they would be allowed to marry.
They repeated that even as they struggled to get civil unions passed through the Colorado Legislature. Then, less than a year after civil unions became law here on July 1, 2013, state courts began to topple gay marriage bans across the country, albeit with stays pending appeals to higher courts.
On Wednesday, a federal judge in Denver struck a blow to Colorado's voter-approved gay marriage ban, calling it unconstitutional but issuing a temporary stay to give the state a chance to appeal.
The ruling could be another step toward a showdown in the U.S. Supreme Court to settle the question of gay marriage bans once and for all.
Judge Raymond P. Moore's decision was in response to a lawsuit filed July 1 by six gay couples who asked the court for an injunction ordering that the state's ban no longer be enforced.
He put his ruling temporarily on hold, however, giving Colorado Republican Attorney General John Suthers until Aug. 25 to seek a stay from the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver, or from the U.S. Supreme Court.
Shortly after the ruling, Suthers filed a notice of appeal to the 10th Circuit. He said he's confident the appeals court will continue the stay to let the U.S. Supreme Court be the final authority on the question of gay-marriage bans.
The couples filed the lawsuit after the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver ruled against Utah's gay marriage ban. That ruling is also on hold and could be the case the U.S. Supreme Court considers.
Gay couples applauded Wednesday's ruling, but with mixed emotions.
One of the plaintiffs, Sheila Schroeder, 49, said the ruling brought both excitement and grief.
"This ruling has made us thrilled and we are grieving a little. The grief comes from John Suthers' insistence on clogging up the courts with unnecessary lawsuits," she said.
But Suthers said in a statement after the ruling that his appeal is necessary until a definitive decision from the nation's highest court.
"We are gratified Judge Moore agreed with us that additional litigation in that court would be wasteful given that our laws' status will be decided by the Supreme Court's decision in the Utah's case," he said.
The U.S. Supreme Court's next term begins in October.
Although some of the couples in the lawsuit have civil unions in Colorado, the lawsuit called them unequal and an inadequate substitute to marriage.
Even though Colorado's gay marriage ban is still in effect, clerks in Boulder, Denver, and Pueblo counties have issued marriage licenses to gay couples after several favorable court rulings. Denver and Pueblo have stopped because of a state Supreme Court order, and Suthers is trying to get Boulder to cease issuing licenses to gay couples.