SALT LAKE CITY — Gay couples in Utah were thrust into legal limbo Monday as the U.S. Supreme Court put a halt to same-sex marriages in the state, turning jubilation to doubt just weeks after a judge's ruling sent people rushing to get married.
The justices did not rule on the merits of the case or on same-sex marriage bans in general, leaving both sides confident they'll ultimately win. The decision stays in effect while the Denver-based 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals considers the long-term question of whether gay couples have a right to wed in Utah.
For those couples who just got married — or were planning their nuptials — the latest twist in the legal battle clouds what was seen as a cause for celebration.
"It feels like we are second-class citizens during the stay," said Moudi Sbeity, who is waiting to get married until the legal process plays out. "There's also the fear of the unknown of what might come next."
Sbeity and partner Derek Kitchen are one of the three couples who brought the Utah lawsuit that led to the surprise Dec. 20 ruling by U.S. District Judge Robert Shelby, who said the state's ban on same-sex marriage violated gay and lesbian couples' constitutional rights.
State officials praised Monday's decision to put a hold on things, saying it should have come earlier to avoid uncertainty. Two previous courts turned down their request for a stay.
"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," Gov. Gary Herbert said.
The Supreme Court's unsigned order did not indicate anyone dissented from the decision to halt same-sex marriages in Utah. Justice Sonia Sotomayor, who handles emergency appeals from Utah and the five other states in the 10th Circuit, turned the matter over to the entire court.
Many believe the Supreme Court will eventually settle the issue for good. Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes said he believes the court's decision indicates an interest in Utah's case, and he hopes the justices someday issue a final answer.
Others doubt the high court will step in any time soon. In June, the justices passed on weighing on the constitutionality of defining marriage as being between a man and woman, relying instead on a technical legal argument to resolve the California case and clear the way for same-sex marriage in the state, which resumed at the end of June.
Douglas NeJaime, a professor of law at the University of California, Irvine, said the court's decision to halt gay marriages doesn't necessarily give any indication of how the justices would rule on the issue, and he believes justices want the issue to work its way through normal legal channels before they weigh in.
Meanwhile, the state is trying to determine whether the marriages that have already taken place are still valid
"This is precisely the uncertainty we were hoping to avoid by requesting the stay," Reyes said. "It's unfortunate that many Utah citizens have been put into this legal limbo."
Marriage licenses issued in 2008 in California prior to the passage of the state's same-sex marriage ban were eventually upheld by the state supreme court.
That leads NeJaime to believe a court will need to rule on Utah's marriages. If the Utah attorney general challenges the validity of the licenses as expected, that might lead to several months of limbo for the couples, he said.
For 17 days, Utah was the 18th state to allow gay couples to wed.
More than a thousand couples flocked to county clerks offices, marrying on courthouse steps in darkness and celebrating a judge's decision that the 2004 voter-approved ban on same-sex marriage in the state was unconstitutional. The state appealed to the 10th Circuit, which also refused to halt marriages in the meantime.
It was a surprising development in a state where nearly two-thirds of the 2.8 million residents are members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and Mormons dominate the state's legal and political circles. The Mormon church was one of the leading forces behind California's short-lived ban on same-sex marriage, Proposition 8.
Though the church has softened its stance toward gays and lesbians in recent years, it still teaches that homosexual activity is a sin and stands by its support for "traditional marriage." Church officials say they hope a higher court validates its belief that marriage is between a man and woman.
Shelby's ruling overturning the state's ban was the first by a federal judge to overturn a state marriage ban since the U.S. Supreme Court issued two decisions on same-sex marriage in June.
The justices at that time struck down a provision of the federal Defense of Marriage Act that prevented legally married gay and lesbian couples from receiving a range of tax, health, pension and other federal benefits.
On the same day, the court left in place a trial court's decision that struck down California's constitutional ban on same-sex marriage.
The action now shifts to Denver, where the appeals court will consider arguments from the state against same-sex marriage as well as from the three gay and lesbian couples who challenged the ban in support of Shelby's ruling.
The 10th Circuit has set short deadlines for both sides to file their written arguments, with the state's first brief due on January 27. No date for argument has been set yet.
James Magleby, a lawyer for couples who sued to overturn the ban, said that while the halt to same-sex marriages is temporary — assuming the appeals court does not reverse Shelby's ruling — it is disappointing because it leaves Utah families waiting to marry until the appeal is over.
"Every day that goes by, same-sex couples and their children are being harmed by not being able to marry and be treated equally," Magleby said in a statement that also proclaimed confidence in his side's case before the appellate judges.
Sherman reported from Washington.