The US Supreme Court has halted same-sex marriages in Utah -
permitted for less than three weeks - while the state appeals
a lower-court ruling legalizing them, as the justices again
left their imprint on the debate over gay nuptials.
The high court granted a request from state officials
appealing a federal judge's Dec. 20 ruling that had allowed
same-sex weddings to go ahead in the heavily Mormon state.
The action by the court means that gay weddings in the state
are on hold for now while the case is appealed to the
Denver-based 10th US Circuit Court of Appeals. Hundreds of
gay couples in Utah have received marriage licenses since the
ruling by US District Judge Robert Shelby.
The Supreme Court's action on Monday was only on the matter
of whether there should be a stay of Shelby's ruling. The
high court's order was two sentences long, with no justices
writing individual opinions indicating where they might stand
on the merits of the case.
But the fact that the court granted the stay was enough to
put the spotlight on where the justices stand on the issue
six months after their two high-profile decisions on the
One ruling struck down the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), a
federal law that denied federal benefits to legally married
same-sex couples. The other paved the way for gay marriage to
resume in California.
In both cases, the court avoided making any sweeping
pronouncements about a right to gay marriage in the United
The appeals court has already agreed to hear the Utah case on
an expedited schedule, with a Feb. 25 deadline for court
Terry Henry, a Utah special education teacher who took
advantage of Shelby's decision to marry Penny Kirby, said she
was surprised by the decision to grant a stay.
"The world seems a little less stable today," Henry said.
Henry, 47, added that she wonders what impact the stay might
have on her newly minted family's rights. Having a marriage
license allowed Henry to add the unemployed Kirby, 51, to her
work-based health insurance just last week.
Brian Brown, president of the National Organization for
Marriage, which opposes gay marriage, characterized Monday's
high court action as a repudiation of Shelby's decision.
"The actions of this activist judge are an affront to the
rule of law and the sovereign rights of the people of Utah to
define marriage," he said in a statement.
'FREEDOM TO MARRY'
Gay marriage supporters including the American Civil
Liberties Union sought to downplay the high court's action.
"Despite today's decision, we are hopeful that the lower
court's well-reasoned decision will be upheld in the end and
that courts across the country will continue to recognize
that all couples should have the freedom to marry," ACLU
lawyer Joshua Block said in a statement.
Utah become the 18th state - at least temporarily - where gay
marriage was permitted when Shelby sided with three same-sex
couples in their lawsuit challenging a voter-passed amendment
to the Utah state constitution that defined marriage as
exclusively between a man and a woman.
Little more than a decade ago, none of the 50 US states
recognized same-sex marriage. Since then, attitudes have
changed rapidly in some parts of the country.
At the time of the Supreme Court rulings in June, only 12
states and the District of Columbia recognized gay marriage.
Since then, more states have followed, some via legislative
action and others due to court rulings. Hawaii, Illinois and
New Mexico are the most recent states where gay marriage has
Shelby had declined to stay his ruling pending appeal,
meaning gay couples were able to marry in Utah immediately.
The appeals court also had declined to stay the ruling,
leaving the US Supreme Court as the state's last recourse.
Shelby's decision came as a shock to many of Utah's 2.8
million residents, nearly two-thirds of whom are members of
the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Mormon
doctrine states that sexual relations outside opposite-sex
marriage are contrary to the will of God.
Utah's stay application relied in part on the high court's
June decision in United States v. Windsor, which, although it
struck down DOMA, also said the definition of marriage was
largely a matter of state law.
In the Windsor case, in which the court was split 5-4,
Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote for the majority that the
federal law violated the US Constitution's guarantee of equal