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Wake County, N.C. deputy sheriffs Chad Biggs, 35, left, and Chris Creech, 46, share their wedding cake after they were married in Raleigh, N.C. on Friday.
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Just hours after Chattanooga wrapped up its annual Pride Celebration, the U.S. Supreme Court decided it wouldn't weigh in on same-sex marriage appeals, opening the door for legal marriage in 30 states.

The decision not to decide didn't immediately affect Tennesseans. It won't legalize marriage in Georgia or Alabama, either. But some residents are still holding their breath.

That's because the decision placed the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which includes Kentucky, Michigan, Ohio and Tennessee, squarely in the spotlight. If the court decides not to uphold any of six appeals it's still considering, it could trigger a split that would pull the Supreme Court back into the fray.

"Everyone just assumed that all these cases were going up to the Supreme Court. That's kind of what caught people off guard," said Pierre Bergeron, a Cincinnati attorney who runs a blog dedicated to the 6th Circuit's activity.

Instead, Bergeron said, the Supreme Court left the decision-making in the hands of lower courts.

"The message there is that the Supreme Court, in all likelihood, is not going to take up those same-sex marriage cases unless a split of authority emerges in the 6th Circuit Court," Bergeron said.

If the 6th Circuit's ruling doesn't line up with what other federal appeals courts have said, the Supreme Court would need to step in to create uniformity, Bergeron explained. On the other hand, if it upholds the lower courts' rulings, same-sex marriage could immediately become legal in all four states in the circuit.

"The pressure is really now on the 6th Circuit Court," said Shannon Minter, an attorney with the San Francisco-based National Center for Lesbian Rights.

Minter represents three Tennessee couples whose appeals are now before the 6th Circuit.

In August, 6th Circuit judges heard arguments in the six cases spread among the four states. In each case, a federal district judge has ruled in favor of gay marriage. Tennessee's case involved three lesbian couples who, after marrying in other states, won the right to have their marriages recognized in the state. The state appealed that ruling. An average two- to three-month decision time means the appeals court's ruling is expected at any time.

"Couples could start marrying in Tennessee right away," Minter said. "The stakes are very high."

For Chattanooga Tea Party President Mark West, the Supreme Court's lack of action, and its impact on the 6th Circuit, are unconstitutional.

"I think what is a travesty in this whole matter is that you have a small group of men and women in black robes that are in essence overruling the will of the people," West said.

West said he would rather see the decision go to a vote. He pointed to Tennessee's Constitution as evidence that state residents don't support same-sex marriage.

"Marriage is a historical term. It's the union of a man and a women. And just because some men and women in black robes choose to broaden or redefine that term does not change what that term means," West said.

The Movement Advancement Group, a pro-same-sex-marriage think tank, ranks Tennessee as one of 20 "low equality" states. Laws do not provide relationship recognition or allow LGBT couples to adopt children. Even if they can legally marry, Minter said, gay couples in the state wouldn't be protected from discrimination at work.

"Tennessee is one of the states where the gay community has had the most difficulty making progress," Minter said.

Alabama, Georgia and much of the South scored "low" as well.

Chris Anderson, a Chattanooga city councilman who remains one of only two openly gay public officials in Tennessee and the only one to win a contested election, said Chattanooga has a "ways to go" in terms of equality.

In August, a measure that would have provided partner benefits for city employees was soundly defeated as a ballot measure. Still, Anderson said, the city is moving toward greater equality.

"I think we're making good progress to show that your sexual orientation doesn't matter, it's the quality of your work and your character," Anderson said.

Recent events like the Tennessee Valley Pride's March for Equality point toward growing momentum.

"I feel like the morale of our community is rising again," said Kat Cooper, vice president of Tennessee Valley Pride.

Cooper grew up in Chattanooga and has been openly gay since middle school. Now a Collegedale police detective, she last year championed a very public battle that ended with same-sex couples receiving spousal benefits from that city.

And no matter what happens in the 6th Circuit, Cooper said, she thinks the legalization of same-sex marriage across the country is inevitable.

"Equality's going to come," Cooper said. "I don't question that for a second."

Contact staff writer Claire Wiseman at (423) 757-6347 or cwiseman@timesfreepress.com. Follow her @clairelwiseman.

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