WASHINGTON (BP) -- The U.S. Supreme Court has finally halted same-sex weddings in Utah after lower courts refused to block the ceremonies while the state challenged their legality.
The high court, amid the festering legal issue in numerous states, issued its temporary stay Monday (Jan. 6) of a federal court ruling that struck down a 2004 Utah constitutional amendment that defined marriage as only between a man and a woman.
Federal judge Robert Shelby -- whose Dec. 20 decision made Utah the 18th state with legalized same-sex marriage -- had refused the state's request to block enforcement of his decision while it appealed to the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver. The 10th Circuit also rejected the state's application for a stay.
Utah made its request to Associate Justice Sonia Sotomayor, who handles emergency applications from the 10th Circuit. She referred the state's request to the full court, and the justices announced without comment their order for a stay while the 10th Circuit handles the appeal.
Because Shelby and the appeals court refused to stay his opinion, the unions of the same-sex couples who married during the 17 days his ruling was in effect are in a state of doubt. Nearly 1,000 same-sex weddings were conducted in Utah before the Supreme Court acted, according to The Deseret News, a Salt Lake City newspaper owned by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons).
"This is the uncertainty that we were trying to avoid by asking the District Court for a stay immediately after its decision,” Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes said in a written statement after the high court's action. “It is very unfortunate that so many Utah citizens have been put into this legal limbo,"
Defenders of biblical, traditional marriage applauded the Supreme Court's order.
Southern Baptist public policy specialist Barrett Duke told Baptist Press the stay showed the Supreme Court "honored its own ruling" last summer in a high-profile case on same-sex marriage "when it stated that marriage is a matter for the states individually to decide."
"Regrettably, though, the fate of same-sex marriage in Utah is still going to be debated and decided in federal courts," said Duke, the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission's vice president for public policy and research, in a written statement.
Ryan Anderson, the Heritage Foundation's expert on marriage and religious liberty, wrote in a blog post, "The states remain free -- and should continue to remain free -- to define marriage as the union of one man and one woman. Today's announcement from the Supreme Court is therefore welcome.
"One district judge should not be able to misread the Court's recent decisions and force any state to act contrary to the meaning and purpose of marriage," Anderson said.
The country's leading advocacy organization for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights expressed dissatisfaction with the Supreme Court order but contended its cause would prevail.
"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," said Human Rights Campaign President Chad Griffin in a written statement. He added, "As the marriage equality map expands, history is on our side and we will not rest until where you live is not a barrier to living your dreams."
Utah Gov. Gary Herbert, a Republican, said in a written release that Utah's citizens "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."
Anderson said the debate over marriage should not be settled by judges.
"Whatever one thinks about marriage, the courts shouldn't be redefining it," Anderson said. "America should make marriage policy through the democratic process rather than allowing judges to dictate it through decisions that have no grounding in our Constitution."
Utah voters passed the amendment limiting marriage to a man and a woman with about a two-thirds majority. National battle continues
Same-sex marriage has increasingly made gains in the states. With Shelby's ruling, nine states legalized gay marriage in 2013. The 18 states that have legalized same-sex marriage are generally located in three sections of the country, plus Hawaii: The Northeast (Connecticut, Delaware, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Rhode Island and Vermont); Midwest (Illinois, Iowa and Minnesota); and West (California, New Mexico, Utah and Washington).
The District of Columbia also has legalized same-sex marriage.
The issue is in the courts in a variety of states, and gay marriage advocates are seeking electoral or legislative victories in others. Through 2016, HRC has targeted Arizona, Colorado, Indiana, Michigan, Nevada, Ohio and Oregon at the ballot box or in the legislature.
The church has an important role to play as the policy debate regarding marriage continues, the ERLC's Duke said.
"In the meantime, our church leaders must consider ways they can help their congregations and communities understand the importance of marriage as defined by God," Duke told BP. "Christians everywhere must also pray fervently for our nation and our leaders who will be making decisions about marriage that will have significant social ramifications.
"Additionally, those committed to the biblical definition of marriage must do all they can to live out biblical values within their own marriages so a skeptical culture can see clearly the great social benefit of God's design for marriage," he said.
In his opinion, Shelby ruled Utah's 2004 amendment violates equal protection and due process rights under the U.S. Constitution. The amendment and two related Utah laws deny the state's "gay and lesbian citizens their fundamental right to marry and, in so doing, demean the dignity of these same-sex couples for no rational reason," Shelby wrote.
In late June, the Supreme Court refused in an opinion to prohibit states from limiting marriage to a man and a woman. In a procedural ruling on a case from California, the justices effectively let stand a federal judge's invalidation of a state amendment that defined marriage in the traditional way. In another decision the same day, the high court struck down a portion of a federal law, the Defense of Marriage Act, which limited marriage to heterosexual couples.
The case from Utah is Herbert v. Kitchen.
Shelby's Dec. 20 decision came only a week after Clark Waddoups, another federal judge in Utah, essentially decriminalized polygamy in the state. Waddoups invalidated a portion of a state law that prohibited bigamy, ruling as unconstitutional a section barring a married person from cohabiting with someone who is not his or her spouse.
In effect, Waddoups legalized polygamy as it is practiced in Utah primarily by members of fundamentalist spin-offs of the Mormon religion. Such polygamous households typically do not have multiple marriage licenses but treat all relationships between a man and the women with whom he lives as marriages.
Tom Strode is Washington bureau chief for Baptist Press. Get Baptist Press headlines and breaking news on Twitter (@BaptistPress
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