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A federal appeals court last Wednesday refused to extend past Jan. 5 a hold on a ruling that declared Florida's ban on gay marriage unconstitutional, possibly bringing same-sex weddings one step closer to reality.

The Atlanta-based 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals also said Wednesday it will consider the substance of the state's appeal on an expedited basis. Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi wants the court to reverse a Tallahassee federal judge's decision in August that would strike down the same-sex marriage ban.

In that ruling, U.S. District Judge Robert Hinkle said the Jan. 5 date would give enough time for appeals to be considered before any Florida marriage licenses are issued to same-sex couples. If the appeals court were to reverse Hinkle's decision, the date would become irrelevant.

Still, Equality Florida Chief Executive Officer Nadine Smith hailed Wednesday's single-page ruling as a victory, noting that if the stay expires, gay couples could begin applying for marriage licenses after Jan. 5.

"Every day of delay is another day of harm experienced by thousands of loving and committed same-sex couples in Florida," she said. "Now it's time to break out the wedding bells. Florida is ready for the freedom to marry."

The Florida Family Policy Council, one of the groups that supported the 2008 Florida constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage, released a statement criticizing Wednesday's decision.

"The court today is wrong," Council President John Stemberger said in a news release. "The courts will never have the final word on an institution as fundamental to the human experience as marriage. You simply cannot build a civilization without natural marriage."

Bondi spokeswoman Jennifer Meale said officials are reviewing the decision. One of the state's options would be to ask the U.S. Supreme Court to extend the stay past the date as appeals are pending.

Like many other judges, Hinkle ruled that the state's gay-marriage ban violates the U.S. Constitution's guarantee of equal protection. Most federal appeals courts have adopted a similar view, except for a recent decision by the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Cincinnati upholding the right of four states to decide whether to allow gay marriage. More than half the states allow gay marriage.

It's unclear when the 11th Circuit will rule on the substance of the state's appeal. Ultimately it will likely take the U.S. Supreme Court to decide the issue nationally, particularly since there is now a split among the circuit courts.

Judges in four Florida counties have also declared the same-sex marriage ban unconstitutional, but those decisions are also being appealed by Bondi and no marriage licenses have been issued.