U.S. Supreme Court calls a halt to same-sex marriage in state of Utah
About 1,500 people gather to celebrate marriage equality after a federal judge declined to stay his ruling that legalized same sex marriage in Utah, at Washington Square just outside of the Salt Lake City and County Building, Monday, Dec. 23, 2013, in Salt Lake City. (AP / The Deseret News, Tom Smart)
Published Monday, January 6, 2014 11:26AM EST
Last Updated Monday, January 6, 2014 3:13PM EST
SALT LAKE CITY -- The Supreme Court on Monday put same-sex marriages on hold in the conservative state of 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 western 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 and now the state is trying to determine whether those marriages are still valid, Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes said. He said he didn't know when they'd make a determination, saying they don't want to rush an important legal decision.
"This is precisely the uncertainty we were hoping to avoid by requesting the stay," Reyes said. "It's unfortunate that many Utah citizens have been put into this legal limbo."
The Supreme Court's unsigned order did not reveal anything about the justices' views on same-sex marriage.
The high court order will remain in effect until the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals decides whether to uphold Shelby's ruling.
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. .
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 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.
Utah changed its constitution to prohibit same-sex marriage in 2004.
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 Defence 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 Washington federal district that allow, or soon will allow, gay and lesbian couples to wed.