The unexpected advancement of marriage equality in one of the most conservative states in the nation came screeching to a halt Monday, leaving those same-sex couples who legally married in Utah left in a state of legal limbo.
More than 1,000 same-sex couples are estimated to have been married since U.S District Court Judge Robert J. Shelby declared Utah's ban on same-sex marriage unconstitutional in a 53-page Dec. 20 ruling that found "Utah's prohibition on same-sex marriage conflicts with the United States Constitution's guarantees of equal protection and due process under the law."
But following a decision by the U.S. Supreme Court Monday to grant an emergency stay for the decision, thus blocking same-sex marriages in Utah pending appeal to the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals, what legal status those couples now stand in remains unclear.
"There is not clear legal precedence for this particular situation," said Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes (R) in a statement. "This is the uncertainty that we were trying to avoid by asking the District Court for a stay immediately after its decision. It is very unfortunate that so many Utah citizens have been put into this legal limbo."
In Utah's request to Justice Sotomayor to stay the District Court's decision, which she referred to all nine justices, Utah officials had listed a variety of reasons for the stay, including the argument that the state and and its citizens "will suffer irreparable injury from halting the enforcement of Utah's definition of marriage," which was defined as between a man and a woman in the state's Constitution by voters in 2004.
"Every marriage performed uniting person of the same sex is an affront to the sovereignty of the State and to the democratically expressed will of the people of Utah," the application stated, while also noting Utah could face "ever-increasing administrative and financial costs" before the case is resolved and that same-sex couples "may be irreparably harmed in their dignitary and financial interests if their marital status is retroactively voided."
According to Reyes, "Utah's Office of Attorney General is carefully evaluating the legal status of the marriages that were performed since the District Court’s decision and will not rush to a decision that impacts Utah citizens so personally."
The Department of Justice has not yet indicated whether same-sex couples who were legally married in Utah over the past few weeks will be recognized for benefits purposed by the federal government.
White House press secretary Jay Carney provided no comment Tuesday on the specifics of the case, noting that the Obama administration is not a party to the litigation, and directed questions regarding the extension of federal benefits to the Justice Department. Speaking more broadly, however, Carney reiterated Obama's support for marriage equality.
"He believes that loving, committed gay and lesbian couples that want to get married and have access to the full benefits, protections and obligations that marriage brings should be able to do so," Carney said. "He has also long opposed divisive and discriminatory efforts to deny rights and benefits to same-sex couples. And he believes strongly that protections should not be taken away from committed gay and lesbian couples who want to take care of their families."
Despite the abrupt hold put on same-sex marriages in Utah, advocates remain confident that the District Court’s decision will prevail when arguments are heard by the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals.
"While every day's denial of the freedom to marry hurts, [the] decision by the Supreme Court to grant a stay in Utah is just a temporary pause in the work to win marriage for all loving and committed same-sex couples in the state," said Freedom to Marry president and founder Evan Wolfson in a statement. "It's crucial to use the momentum we gained in 2013 for the freedom to marry in the new year to show that allowing same-sex couples to share in the joy of marriage in Utah – and everywhere – is the right thing to do."
[Photo: The Supreme Court justices. Credit: U.S. Supreme Court.]