By Peter Henderson and Dan Levine
SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) - The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals cleared the way on Tuesday for the U.S. Supreme Court to consider California's gay marriage ban, declining an appeal to revisit the case.
Supporters of the 2008 ban, Proposition 8, have lost two rounds in federal court but have made clear they will appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court and hope for a favorable response from the conservative-leaning court.
The top U.S. court could agree to hear the matter in the session beginning in October, putting it on track to decide the case within a year.
"We're not end of the line yet, but we are vastly closer," said Theodore Olson, an attorney for the two gay couples challenging the ban.
An attorney for the ban supporters said that his team was preparing for the next round. "We will promptly file our appeal to the nation's highest court and look forward to a positive outcome on behalf of the millions of Californians who believe in traditional marriage," Andrew Pugno said in a statement.
The Supreme Court could also take on a recent decision by Boston's 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which ruled that part of the federal Defense of Marriage Act was unconstitutional, and hear the two alongside each other, said Thomas Goldstein, a Washington D.C.-based attorney who practices before the top court.
"The timing is too perfect," Goldstein said, adding that the oral argument would resemble this year's proceedings on legal challenges to President Barack Obama's health care plan.
President Obama last month turned gay marriage into a 2012 campaign issue, saying he believed same-sex couples should be able to marry. Republican Mitt Romney disagrees.
The vast majority of U.S. states limit marriage to opposite-sex couples, and popular votes have consistently approved bans on widening those rights.
But polls show growing acceptance of same-sex nuptials, which have been legalized in eight states and the District of Columbia, thanks to votes by legislators and court decisions.
The 1st Circuit Court of Appeals in Boston last week ruled that the federal Defense of Marriage Act unconstitutionally denied benefits to same-sex couples in a state where gay marriage was legal.
But appeals courts have so far declined to rule broadly on whether marriage is a fundamental human right for same-sex couples as well as heterosexuals.
A three-judge panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in February that California's Prop 8 ban discriminated against gays and lesbians. It rejected the key argument by ban supporters that Proposition 8 furthered "responsible procreation."
Ban proponents appealed the ruling to the full 9th Circuit, which could hear it with a larger panel of judges. The court on Tuesday said it would not do so. It also kept the decision ending the ban on hold for 90 days, to allow for an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.
California is the most populous U.S. state and the home of Hollywood and hippies, but it has a socially conservative side as well. That leaning was clear in the 2008 ballot that enacted Prop 8 by 52.24 percent to 47.76 percent, or some 600,000 votes, ending a summer of legal same-sex marriage.
A federal judge struck down Proposition 8 in 2010, although existing same-sex marriages are on hold pending appeals.
(Editing by Sandra Maler)
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