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Same-sex marriage in limbo in Florida after judge strikes ban

By Letitia Stein

TAMPA Fla. (Reuters) - Wedding bells may not be ringing anytime soon for gay couples in Florida, as conservatives vowed on Friday to fight a circuit judge's landmark ruling to strike down the state's same-sex marriage ban, a rising political issue for the fall elections.

Gay couples began making plans to get married in Monroe County when Judge Luis Garcia ruled on Thursday that local clerks could begin issuing marriage licenses next Tuesday.

Now that may not happen because Florida's Republican attorney general, Pam Bondi, announced the same day that she was appealing the decision, forcing a stay on same-sex marriages.

"We’re taking it minute by minute," said Aaron Huntsman, the gay plaintiff in the case, along with his partner, William Lee Jones.

Bondi's move could elevate gay marriage as an issue in the November elections, likely to arrive long before the constitutional issues are resolved by state and federal courts.

Bondi's hold on gay marriages could remain in place until the appeal is resolved, which could take months or years, legal experts said. Or Garcia could lift the stay, allowing same-sex marriages in his Florida Keys jurisdiction.

"The flood gates would open, and everybody would run down to the Keys to get married,” said David Weinstein, a former state and federal prosecutor now in private practice in Miami.

Appeals from many of the 17 other states where courts have similarly struck down gay marriage bans are advancing to the U.S. Supreme Court.

In a ruling on Friday, a U.S. appeals court upheld the decision to void Oklahoma's ban, as it had for Utah. [ID:nL2N0PT1C3]

Florida's conservatives plan to fight to preserve the ban, approved by voters in 2008 as a state constitutional amendment.

"Do plaintiffs have a greater claim to rights than everyone else in Florida?" Eladio Jose Armesto, a conservative activist, said in a call with reporters.

Anger at Bondi's move could become a rallying cry in south Florida's Democratic stronghold, said Lance deHaven-Smith, a political science professor at Florida State University.

"That's where Democrats need turnout especially," he said. "This just mobilizes people," he added.

Bondi is considered safe in her fall re-election bid. But Republican Governor Rick Scott, in a tight race, is attempting to appeal to both sides, saying he supports "traditional marriage" while opposing discrimination.

(Reporting by Letitia Stein; Additional reporting by Zachary Fagenson, Bill Cotterell and David Adams; Editing by David Adams and Eric Beech)

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