WASHINGTON - The Supreme Court put a stop to same-sex marriages in conservative Utah on Monday pending the state's appeal of a federal district court's order that had legalized the unions.
The high court, acting on a petition sent to Justice Sonia Sotomayor, ruled that gay marriages cannot continue during the appeals process. The case is pending before the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals.
U.S. District Judge Robert Shelby ruled Dec. 20 that the state's ban on same-sex marriage violates gay and lesbian couples' constitutional rights. Since then, more than 900 same-sex couples have tied the knot.
While blocking any new marriages, the court's order should not throw into question those already performed, said John Mejia, legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Utah.
"Though future marriages are on hold for now, the state should recognize as valid those marriages that have already been issued, and those couples should continue to be treated as married by the federal government," Mejia said.
The gay marriage case was one of two emergency petitions pending before Justice Sotomayor. In the other case, she's asked to stop the new federal health care law from forcing religious groups to begin the process of providing free birth control. The high court has yet to rule on that request.
Despite two landmark Supreme Court decisions in June that vastly expanded same-sex marriage rights in states from Maine to California, gay and lesbian couples in 33 states remain outside the bonds of holy matrimony. Utah is again one of those states.
The court ruled in June that gay marriages could resume in California because opponents challenging lower court rulings lacked standing to appeal. In that case, gays and lesbians couldn't marry until the appeals had run out.
The justices also struck down a key provision of the federal Defense of Marriage Act, ruling that it discriminated against same-sex couples. The reasoning in that more sweeping decision was used by Shelby in legalizing Utah gay marriages.
The latest ruling was heralded by opponents of same-sex marriage. "The decision by a single federal judge to redefine marriage in Utah is lawless, and we are pleased that the Supreme Court has put this decision on hold to allow the state to appeal it in an orderly fashion," said Brian Brown, president of the National Organization for Marriage.
On the other side, gay and lesbian rights groups criticized the court's order and vowed to press ahead with their battle to win marriage rights in all 50 states.
"The Supreme Court's decision to press the pause button on marriage equality in Utah is a huge disappointment for thousands of loving and committed couples, whose marriages are now in legal limbo," said Omar Sharif, Jr., of GLAAD, formerly the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation. "The court is putting families at risk and taking a big step backward in ensuring full equality for all Americans."
"In the end, justice will be served, and no couple will be excluded from this cherished institution," said Chad Griffin, president of the Human Rights Campaign, the nation's largest gay rights organization. "As the marriage equality map expands, history is on our side, and we will not rest until where you live is not a barrier to living your dreams."
The Salt Lake City county clerk's office, which issues marriage licenses, said couples are being told of the court's decision and sent a statement from the state attorney general's office.
"I'm not surprised that the U.S. Supreme Court would do this. They're more conservative," said retired Utah state representative Jackie Biskupski. She performed at least a dozen weddings at Salt Lake City's government center in the days following the original ruling.
The reaction to the same-sex unions in Salt Lake City was positive, she said. "There were no protests here, ever. I think that speaks volumes about how the general public here is ready to say, 'We're done with this fight. Let's start treating people equally. We don't like what it's doing to our families and our friends.'"
Across the nation, more than 40 lawsuits seeking marriage rights for gays and lesbians are pending in 20 states. Trials are set for February in Michigan and June in Pennsylvania. A case in Nevada already has been lost and appealed to the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals.
In addition to basic marriage rights, some plaintiffs are seeking to adopt children, divorce spouses they married in other states, get their names on partners' death certificates or avoid inheritance taxes. A Kentucky woman in a civil union from Vermont wants a spousal exclusion from being forced to testify against her partner in a criminal trial.
And in several cases, couples legally hitched in one of the 17 states and the District of Columbia where same-sex marriage is legal are seeking to have those marriages recognized elsewhere.