WASHINGTON - The US Supreme Court on Monday declined to take up the hotly contested issue of gay marriage, a surprise move that will allow gay men and women to marry in five states where same-sex weddings were previously banned.
By rejecting appeals in cases involving Virginia, Oklahoma, Utah, Wisconsin and Indiana, the court left intact lower-court rulings that struck down bans in those states.
Other states under the jurisdiction of appeals courts that struck down the bans will also be affected, meaning the number of states with gay marriage is likely to quickly jump from 19 to 30.
The other states would be North Carolina, West Virginia, South Carolina, Wyoming, Kansas and Colorado.
The high court's decision not to hear the cases was unexpected because most legal experts believed it would want to weigh in on a question of national importance that focuses on whether the US Constitution's guarantee of equal treatment under the law means gay marriage bans were unlawful.
The issue could still return to the court, but the message sent by the court in declining to hear the matter would be a boost to gay marriage advocates involved in similar litigation in states that still have bans on the books.
Just over a year ago, the justices ruled 5-4 in June 2013 to strike down a key part of a federal law that had restricted the definition of marriage to heterosexual couples for the purpose of federal government benefits.
That decision in the case US v. Windsor led to a series of court rulings favouring gay marriage in numerous states. In a separate case decided on the same day, the justices sidestepped the broader question of whether state bans violated the US Constitution but allowed gay marriage to move forward in California.
The momentum within America's courts in favour of gay marriage reflects a sea-change in public opinion in the past decade, with polls showing a steady increase in support. Politicians, mostly Democrats but also some notable Republicans, have increasingly voiced their support for ending bans.
It was only as recently as 2004 that Massachusetts became the first state to allow gay marriage following a state court ruling the previous year.
In 17 other states, judges have issued rulings in favour of gay marriage - most of which struck down bans - although the prohibitions have remained intact while litigation continues.
State officials defending their bans counter that the Constitution does not dictate how states should define marriage and that there is no deeply rooted legal tradition that supports a right to gay marriage.