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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 matter.
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 States.
The appeals court has already agreed to hear the Utah case on an expedited schedule, with a Feb. 25 deadline for court papers.
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 become legal.
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 protection.