The U.S. Supreme Court granted Utah a stay on same-sex marriages in the state on Monday, in a move dismissed by gay rights campaigners as a temporary "bump in the road" ahead of a final appeals court ruling on the issue.
The order follows an emergency appeal by state lawyers following a Dec. 20 ruling by U.S. District Judge Robert Shelby that overturned Utah’s ban on same-sex marriage on grounds that it violated the constitutional rights of gay and lesbian citizens.
More than 900 same-sex couples have married in the state since then. The Supreme Court's ruling does not invalidate those marriages, but it’s not clear what will happen if the appeals court reverses Shelby’s decision.
The high court order will remain in effect until the Denver-based 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals decides whether to uphold Shelby’s ruling.
Lawyers for the heavily Mormon state asked the Supreme Court to put a stop to gay marriages, arguing before the court that, “each (marriage) is an affront not only to the interests of the state and its citizens in being able to define marriage through ordinary democratic channels but also to this court’s unique role as final arbiter.”
Proponents of same-sex marriage argued that the unions weren’t harming anyone in the state and should therefore be allowed to continue while the state appealed.
Shelby’s ruling paving the way for same-sex unions came as a surprise to many in the deeply conservative state, where nearly two-thirds of the population belong to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Mormons dominate the state’s legal and political circles. The Mormon church was one of the leading forces behind Proposition 8, which halted same-sex marriages in California for more than four years until courts struck down the initiative.
The reversal of the 2004 ban set off a firestorm of conservative activism, with sporadic protests against same-sex marriage popping up across Utah. One man even said he’d go on a hunger strike to protest Shelby’s decision.
Monday's ruling was welcomed by conservative groups.
Brian Brown, president of the National Organization for Marriage, which opposes gay marriage, characterized Monday's high court action as a repudiation of Judge 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.
But the decision led to defiant words from advocates of same-sex unions in the state.
Sarah Luks-Morgan, a 25-year old Salt Lake City resident who married her wife in Massachusetts and then moved to Utah, said she was disappointed but not surprised by the Supreme Court’s decision.
“I was really, really surprised when the initial court decision came down and then when the appeals court reiterated it with a lack of a stay. In this particular instance, considering the history of gay marriage in the courts, it feels like business as usual.”
But, she says, despite the state’s conservative roots, she sees the decision as just a temporary setback while more and more people change their opinion in favor of gay marriage.
“I’ve had Mormon people pull me aside and say to me, ‘I have no problem with you being married,’” Luks-Morgan said. “So the Supreme Court decision is probably just a bump in the road.”
Evan Wolfson, founder and president of gay rights advocacy group Freedom to Marry said he sees the decision as temporary.
“Every day’s denial of the freedom to marry hurts, but this is just a small pause in the work that will continue,” he said. “The (circuit) judge’s decision still stands, so it’s not really even a setback. It’s a pause.”
Al Jazeera and wire services