By David Schwartz

PHOENIX (Reuters) - A federal judge has struck down Arizona's ban on gay marriage, declaring it unconstitutional in a move that marks the latest in a series of victories for supporters of same-sex marriage in America, court papers showed on Friday.

U.S. District Judge John Sedwick, in a ruling dated Thursday but made public on Friday, wrote that Arizona restrictions on gay marriage were "unconstitutional by virtue of the fact that they deny same-sex couples the equal protection of the law."


Sedwick declined to stay the ruling pending appeal, meaning gay and lesbian couples in Arizona may be able to swiftly apply for marriage licenses on Friday if the judge's ruling is not put on hold by a higher court.

The decision, which is expected to bring to 30 the number of states that allow gay marriage, comes as barriers to such unions have fallen in many states in recent weeks following a string of federal court decisions.

"Today's ruling brings security to thousands of families in Arizona. It's a moment to be celebrated. Equal protection of the law is one of the fundamental principles that allows our country to thrive and evolve," said Alessandra Soler, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Arizona.

Earlier this month, the U.S. Supreme Court surprised observers by leaving intact lower court rulings that struck down gay marriage in five states. A day later, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which has jurisdiction over Arizona, found gay marriage bans in Idaho and Nevada were unconstitutional.

Arizona lawmakers barred gay marriage in 1996 and later bolstered the restriction by defining marriage as between a man and a woman, which voters inscribed into the state constitution in a 2008 ballot measure.

Sedwick in September ordered Arizona to recognize the marriage of a gay man living in the state who was wed in California and whose same-sex spouse later died. In that decision, Sedwick suggested it was probable that Arizona’s ban on same-sex marriage conflicted with the U.S. Constitution.

Also on Friday, the U.S. Justice Department said the federal government will recognize same-sex marriages in Indiana, Oklahoma, Utah, Virginia, Wisconsin, Nevada and Colorado after court rulings striking down gay marriage bans in those states. More states are expected to be added to the list in the coming weeks.

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