OKLAHOMA CITY — A federal appeals court ruling Friday that Oklahoma's ban on gay marriage is unconstitutional spurred celebration among gay rights activists but sparked sharp anger among Republican leaders in a conservative state that prides itself on being the buckle of the nation's Bible Belt.
The decision by a three-judge panel of the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver upholding a federal judge's ruling is the latest in a decade-long legal battle. That fight was launched by two couples — Sharon Baldwin and Mary Bishop, and Gay Phillips and Susan Barton — shortly after 76 percent of Oklahoma voters backed the ban in 2004.
"There are so many gay and lesbian Oklahomans who are celebrating, and they have every right to, because this is a victory for all of us," Baldwin said. "We may be the people at the front of the line holding the flag, but never think for one minute that there's not a huge army behind us. We are far from alone in this."
Friday's decision marks the second time the federal appeals court has found the U.S. Constitution protects same-sex marriage, after its June ruling in a Utah case. As in the Utah case, the court put its 2-1 ruling on hold pending an appeal, meaning same-sex couples won't be allowed to marry in Oklahoma for now.
Baldwin and Bishop, who met while working at the Tulsa World newspaper, have been together 17 years. After an appeals court ruled in 2009 that they lacked standing, they filed an amended complaint listing as the defendant the Tulsa County Court Clerk, since that person issues marriage licenses.
"We could have been married by now in a number of other places," Baldwin said. "(But) we are Oklahomans. This is where we're from and we really have no intention of leaving, and we want to be married here."
Attorneys representing the Tulsa County clerk said Friday they were considering their options. They noted the panel's dissenting judge argued that changing the definition of marriage should belong to Oklahoma residents, not a federal court.
Conservative leaders in Oklahoma agreed, saying the court overstepped its bounds and waded into an issue that is for states to decide.
"Today's ruling is another instance of federal courts ignoring the will of the people and trampling on the right of states to govern themselves," Republican Gov. Mary Fallin said in a statement. "In this case, two judges have acted to overturn a law supported by Oklahomans."
She said she hoped the decision would be overturned and pledged to "fight back against our federal government when it seeks to ignore or change laws written and supported by Oklahomans."
State Rep. Sally Kern, a longtime critic of gay marriage who drew national attention in 2008 when she said homosexuality posed a greater threat to the U.S. than terrorism, urged Fallin to be an example for other states.
"It's time that we the people begin to stand up for morality and God's standards," said Kern, R-Oklahoma City. "If our governor would be bold and take a stand for the 76 percent of the people in Oklahoma who voted ... I think she would be a hero and I think she would set the stage for other states to say: 'You know what? We're not going to let these judges bully us around.'"
Supporters of gay marriage, meanwhile, quickly planned rallies Friday in Oklahoma City and Tulsa to celebrate.
"We're living in a time now that's a completely different Oklahoma than the one I was raised in," said Troy Stevenson, 36, who recently returned to his home state head up The Equality Network.
In the Oklahoma ruling, Judge Carlos Lucero said the court has already found that same-sex couples have a fundamental right to marry that cannot be breached by the state's concern with keeping the focus of marriage on the procreative potential of man-woman unions.
Oklahoma's ban, he wrote, "denies a fundamental right to all same-sex couples who seek to marry or to have their marriages recognized regardless of their child-rearing ambitions."
The Oklahoma and Utah decisions add momentum to a cause that has compiled a string of lower court victories. More than 20 courts have issued rulings siding with gay marriage advocates since the Supreme Court's ruling last year striking down the Defense of Marriage Act. The rulings have come in 17 states, with Florida being the latest.
On Friday, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a stay in the Utah case that will require more than 1,000 same-sex married couples to wait longer for state benefits. Also Friday, Colorado's state Supreme Court ordered Denver's clerk to stop issuing marriage licenses to gay couples while the state's stricken ban is appealed.
Same-sex marriage is now legal in 19 states and the District of Columbia, and recent polls show a majority of Americans support it.