TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -

A federal judge Thursday declared Florida's ban on same-sex marriage unconstitutional, joining state judges in four counties who have sided with gay couples wishing to tie the knot.

U.S. District Judge Robert L. Hinkle in Tallahassee ruled that the ban added to Florida's constitution by voters in 2008 violates the 14th Amendment's guarantees of equal protection and due process. Hinkle issued a stay delaying the effect of his order, meaning no marriage licenses will be immediately issued for gay couples.

Hinkle, an appointee of President Bill Clinton, compared bans on gay marriage to the long-abandoned prohibitions on interracial marriage and predicted both would be viewed by history the same way.

"When observers look back 50 years from now, the arguments supporting Florida's ban on same-sex marriage, though just as sincerely held, will again seem an obvious pretext for discrimination," Hinkle wrote in a 33-page ruling. "To paraphrase a civil rights leader from the age when interracial marriage was struck down, the arc of history is long, but it bends toward justice."

Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi has appealed the previous rulings striking down the ban in Broward, Miami-Dade, Monroe and Palm Beach counties. Hinkle's ruling allows time for appeals in the federal case. Bondi has said the Florida cases should await a final ruling on gay marriage by the U.S. Supreme Court.

A number of similar rulings around the country have been put on hold while appeals are pursued.

The latest Florida ruling came in a pair of lawsuits that brought by gay couples seeking to marry in Florida and others who want to force Florida to recognize gay marriages performed legally in other states. Currently, 19 states and the District of Columbia permit same-sex marriage.

Miami plaintiff Juan del Hierro, who legally married his husband, Thomas, in Washington, D.C., said the ruling was a step in the right direction.

"I felt almost like I was re-committing myself to Tom today in light of that decision," he said. "Sometimes it takes a while, but love always wins."

The American Civil Liberties Union of Florida, which represented some of the gay couples, said the tide of rulings makes legal same-sex marriage in Florida appear inevitable.

"We're very pleased to see the ban held unconstitutional in such unequivocal terms so that all Florida families will soon finally have the same protections," ACLU staff attorney Daniel Tilley said.