In a brief ruling, the US Supreme Court put a stop to same-sex marriages in Utah pending state officials' appeal of a federal judge's Dec 20 decision that struck down a ban on gay marriage.
Utah's governor, Gary Herbert, and attorney-general, Sean Reyes, had filed an application with Justice Sonia Sotomayor asking for a stay of Judge Robert J Shelby's ruling after having previous requests denied by Shelby and the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals.
On Jan 6, the US Supreme Court granted the stay.
"The application for stay presented to Justice Sotomayor and by her referred to the Court is granted. The permanent injunction issued by the United States District Court for the District of Utah, case No. 2:13-cv-217, on December 20, 2013, is stayed pending final disposition of the appeal by the United States Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit," the decision states.
Supreme Court justices provided no reason for their ruling, considered to be the usual practice, according to New York University law professor Arthur S Leonard, who offers an analysis of the court's decision.
He notes that a critical question that needs to be addressed is the status of the same-sex marriages that have already taken place since Dec 20.
"Are they presumed to be valid and entitled to be treated as valid by the federal and state and local governments during this interim period of the appeal?" Leonard asks.
He adds, "There are likely to be questions arising over the next few months until the 10th Circuit rules as to whether those already married will be treated as married by the federal and state governments for a range of issues, including Social Security survivor benefits, for example, Family and Medical Leave Act benefits, and so forth."
Hundreds of gay couples now have marriage licences in hand since Shelby ruled that Utah’s ban on gay marriage is unconstitutional.
Utah voters approved the ban in 2004.
Reacting to the Supreme Court's decision, an attorney for the three plaintiff couples expressed disappointment about the stay but says it's "just a temporary order" and not an unusual ruling for the court to make when an appeal is pending.
"Importantly, however, this temporary stay has no bearing on who will win on appeal. We look forward to defending Judge Shelby's decision in the Tenth Circuit," lawyer James Magelby states.
The 10th Circuit Court of Appeals has indicated that it will consider the state's appeal of Shelby's ruling on an expedited basis.
Human Rights Campaign president Chad Griffin expressed disappointment over the Supreme Court's ruling.
"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. We still live in two Americas where full equality is within reach in one and another where even basic protections are non-existent," Griffin says.