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