The U.S. Supreme Court has stepped in and stopped same-sex couples from continuing to marry in Utah.
Nearly 1,000 couples there have already married, following a ruling in December by a federal district judge that found Utah's ban on same-sex marriage unconstitutional. Both that judge and the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals refused to issue a stay of the ruling, which would have immediately stopped couples from obtaining legal marriage licenses.
The state's attorney general and governor appealed to the Supreme Court last month, arguing a stay is needed because there remains a chance the case could reach the nine justices and that they could rule against marriage equality.
Same-sex marriages in Utah must stop immediately and will await a ruling on a pending appeal to the 10th Circuit, to which filings are due by the end of February. The case could then make its way to the Supreme Court. Here's how SCOTUSblog interpreted the consequences of today's ruling for the case going forward:
"The order appeared to have the support of the full Court, since there were no noted dissents. The ruling can be interpreted as an indication that the Court wants to have further exploration in lower courts of the basic constitutional question of state power to limit marriage to a man and a woman. Had it refused the state’s request for delay, that would have at least left the impression that the Court was comfortable allowing same-sex marriages to go forward in the 33 states where they are still banned."
After last year's landmark Supreme Court ruling in Windsor v. U.S., the federal government could no longer refuse to recognize a marriage considered legal by a state. But that decision has also launched legal battles at the state level, marshaled by LGBT activists who say states can no longer opt out of recognizing legal marriages from other states and that such bans are unconstitutional anyway.
In a statement after today's ruling, the Human Rights Campaign highlighted the valuable impression already left on the public by seeing marriage equality in action.
“Utahns and other Americans have witnessed the joy that marriage has brought to hundreds of loving and committed couples over the past weeks," said HRC president Chad Griffin. "While it is disappointing that the dreams of many more will be put on hold, we know that in the end justice will be served and no couple will be excluded from this cherished institution."
While LGBT groups lamented Monday's ruling, Utah's attorney general and governor both praised the move as the "correct decision." Both Gov. Gary Herbert and Attorney General Sean Reyes, in their official capacities, asked the nation's highest court to halt the same-sex marriages taking place.
"The The Supreme Court made the correct decision to stay Judge Shelby's ruling in the Amendment 3 case," said Gov. Herbert in a statement issued Monday afternoon. "Clearly, the stay should have been granted with the original District Court decision in order to have avoided the uncertainty created by this unprecedented change. As I have said all along, all Utahns deserve to have this issue resolved through a fair and complete judicial process. I firmly believe this is a state-rights issue and I will work to defend the position of the people of Utah and our State Constitution."
Newly sworn-in attorney general Reyes said there is no legal precedent on which to base the current legal wrangling over Utah's voter-approved constitutional amendment prohibiting marriage equality.
"This is the uncertainty that we were trying to avoid by asking the District Court for a stay immediately after its decision," wrote Reyes. "It is very unfortunate that so many Utah citizens have been put into this legal limbo."
Reyes' statement went on to say that his office is "carefully evaluating" the legal status of the nearly 1,000 same-sex marriages performed in the weeks since District Judge Robert Shelby's December 20 ruling, and "will not rush to a decision that impacts Utah citizens so personally."
But LGBT legal blog Equality on Trial estimates that the marriages performed while they were legal in Utah are likely to remain so — unless the 10th Circuit or Supreme Court ultimately overturns Shelby's ruling and finds in favor of Utah's antigay amendment. In that case, the legality of same-sex marriages would come into question, though Equality on Trial expects the appeals court to issue instructions to the state regarding the validity of those marriages as the appeal continues.
The attorney general's statement seemed to blast the confusing and arguably haphazard way marriage equality was implemented in Utah, concluding his statement by explaining, "There is an order to the legal process and this decision is just another step in that process. Both legal teams have much work to do before the case is presented before the 10th Circuit Court on an expedited basis. I believe the stay indicates an interest by the Supreme Court in this case and as I have said before, pursuing the legal process to get a final answer from the highest court benefits all citizens of Utah."
While marriage equality is on hold in Utah, some advocates are still planning to rally in support of the lawsuit that briefly brought the freedom to marry to the state. Restore Our Humanity, a nonprofit that is one of the leaders in the fight for marriage equality in Utah, is hosting a “mass wedding reception” fundraiser Saturday at The Rail Event Center in Salt Lake City. For more information or to contribute to the campaign, visit the event’s Facebook page.