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Supreme Court halts Utah gay marriage

The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday put a temporary hold on same-sex marriages in the state of Utah.
Same-sex couples wait in line to get a marriage license at the Salt Lake County Clerk's Office, Dec. 20, 2013.
Same-sex couples wait in line to get a marriage license at the Salt Lake County Clerk's Office, Dec. 20, 2013. 

UPDATED - Marriage equality advocates were dealt a heavy blow on Monday, as the U.S. Supreme Court moved to grant Utah’s request for a temporary halt on same-sex nuptials.

The decision ends a two-week stint of gay couples’ marrying in the Mormon-dominated state, one of the reddest in nation and the 18th to legalize same-sex marriage. All weddings between couples of the same sex will now be on hold until an appeals court hears the case.

“This stay is obviously disappointing for the families in Utah who need the protection of marriage and now have to wait to get married until the appeal is over,” said James Magleby, one of the attorneys challenging Utah’s ban, in a statement. “Every day that goes by, same-sex couples and their children are being harmed by not being able to marry and be treated equally.”

Monday's decision also marks a jarring beginning to 2014, following a year of unprecedented gains for gay rights. Nine states legalized marriage equality in 2013--doubling the number of states where gay couples could wed. Additionally, the U.S. Supreme Court handed down two historic rulings in June--one, allowing same-sex marriage to resume in the state of California, and another striking down the federal Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA,) which prevented the U.S. government from recognizing same-sex marriages.

Since the DOMA ruling, dozens of constitutional challenges have been filed to bans across the country, and gay couples began marrying in seven states--California, Delaware, Hawaii, Illinois, New Jersey, New Mexico, and (until Monday) Utah.

U.S. District Judge Robert J. Shelby had struck down the Beehive State’s 2004 voter-approved ban last month, stating that it violated the U.S. constitution’s guarantees of equal protection and due process under the law. Since then, hundreds of gay couples have married in Utah.

Both Shelby, and the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals had denied requests from the state to put a temporary hold on same-sex marriage while it pursued an appeal. Utah attorneys then turned to the U.S. Supreme Court and asked Justice Sonia Sotomayor, who has jurisdiction over the region that includes Utah, for a temporary delay to the Dec. 20 ruling. Sotomayor referred the motion to the full court, which granted the state's request for a stay in a two-sentence order. 

The 10th Circuit has agreed to hear the case on an expedited basis, setting a deadline of Feb. 25 for court papers.

Home to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, which played an instrumental role in passing California’s short-lived ban on same-sex marriage (Proposition 8,) Utah’s evolution on marriage equality mirrors that of California. The Golden State had also briefly granted marriage licenses to same-sex couples, before voters approved Prop 8 in 2008. Nearly five years would pass before gay couples could once again marry in California, following a decision from the U.S. Supreme Court to let stand a lower court’s ruling that the ban violated gay couples’ constitutional rights.

Much has changed, however, in the five-and-a-half years since California began its initial and brief period of marriage equality, giving advocates reason to hope Utah’s suspension of same-sex nuptials won’t be quite as long. Polls have shown a tremendous shift in public opinion, with a majority of Americans nationwide consistently stating their support for marriage equality. President Obama too has proven to be a fierce advocate for gay rights, overseeing the demise of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell--the military’s ban on openly gay service members--and the implementation of the DOMA ruling in government agencies. The State and Defense Departments, the Treasury, and IRS now all recognize same-sex marriages.

Most recently, Obama signaled his strong support for the gay community by appointing three openly gay athletes to represent the United States at the Winter Games in Sochi, Russia. President Vladimir Putin recently signed into law a series of restrictions on LGBT expression, the most contentious of which banning gay “propaganda,” and the U.S. delegation’s diverse membership demonstrates Obama’s continued opposition to state-sanctioned homophobia.