The Supreme Court on Monday put same-sex marriages on hold in Utah, at least while a federal appeals court more fully considers the issue.
The court issued a brief order blocking any new same-sex unions in the state.
The order grants an emergency appeal by the state following the Dec. 20 ruling by U.S. District Judge Robert Shelby that the state's ban on same-sex marriage violates gay and lesbian couples' constitutional rights.
More than 900 gay and lesbian couples have married since then.
The high court order will remain in effect until the Denver-based 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals decides whether to uphold Shelby's ruling.
The state's request to the Supreme Court was filed with Justice Sonia Sotomayor, who handles emergency appeals from Utah and the five other states in the 10th Circuit. Sotomayor turned the matter over to the entire court.
The action now shifts to Denver, where the appeals court will consider arguments from the state against same-sex marriage as well as from the three gay and lesbian couples who challenged the ban in support of Shelby's ruling. Shelby and the appeals court had previously rebuffed the state's plea to stop gay weddings pending appeal.
The 10th Circuit has set short deadlines for both sides to file their written arguments, with the state's first brief due on January 27. No date for argument has been set yet.
James Magleby, a lawyer for couples who sued to overturn the ban, said that while the halt to same-sex marriages is temporary — assuming the appeals court does not reverse Shelby's ruling — it is disappointing because it leaves Utah families waiting to marry until the appeal is over.
“Every day that goes by, same-sex couples and their children are being harmed by not being able to marry and be treated equally,” Magleby said in a statement that also proclaimed confidence in his side's case before the appellate judges.
Utah Governor Gary Herbert initially declined comment, but was expected to issue a statement later Monday. Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes scheduled a midday news conference.
Utah changed its constitution to prohibit same-sex marriage in 2004.
Nearly two-thirds of Utah's 2.8 million residents are members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and Mormons dominate the state's legal and political circles. The Mormon church was one of the leading forces behind California's short-lived ban on same-sex marriage, Proposition 8.
Though the church has softened its stance toward gays and lesbians in recent years, it still teaches that homosexual activity is a sin and stands by its support for “traditional marriage.” Church officials say they hope a higher court validates its belief that marriage is between a man and woman.
The Supreme Court's unsigned order did not indicate that anyone dissented from the decision not to allow any more same-sex marriages in Utah, at least for now. Nor did the order reveal anything about the justices' views on same-sex marriage.
Shelby was the first federal judge to overturn a state marriage ban since the high court issued two decisions on same-sex marriage in June.
The justices at that time struck down a provision of the federal Defense of Marriage Act that prevented legally married gay and lesbian couples from receiving a range of tax, health, pension and other federal benefits.
Shelby cited the decision in his ruling that the state failed to show that allowing same-sex marriages would affect opposite-sex marriages in any way.
“In the absence of such evidence, the State's unsupported fears and speculations are insufficient to justify the State's refusal to dignify the family relationships of its gay and lesbian citizens,” Shelby wrote.
On the same day, the court left in place a trial court's decision that struck down California's constitutional ban on same-sex marriage. That decision paved the way for same-sex unions to resume in California.
The nation's most populous state is among 17 states and the District of Columbia that allow, or soon will allow, gay and lesbian couples to wed.
The others are: Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Illinois, Iowa, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, Rhode Island, Vermont and Washington state.
Utah had been the 18th, for 17 days.