The US Supreme Court has temporarily blocked gay marriages in Utah pending the western state’s appeal of a federal judge’s ruling allowing same-sex marriage.
Utah had filed an emergency request to stay the judge’s ruling, which struck down as unconstitutional a state law banning same-sex marriage.
In a brief decision, liberal justice Sonia Sotomayor granted the request by Utah’s attorney-general Sean Reyes “pending final disposition of the appeal by the United States Court of Appeals for the Tenth District”.
In his December 20 ruling, federal district judge Robert Shelby said the Utah ban – approved by voters in a referendum in 2004 – violated the right of same-sex couples to equal protection under the law.
Besides temporarily shutting down same-sex marriages in Utah, the ruling was important because it put in question gay marriage bans adopted by 30 US states.
Seventeen US states and the federal capital Washington DC have so far legalised same-sex marriage.
Since Shelby’s ruling, hundreds of same-sex couples have married in Utah, a conservative state with a large Mormon population.
It is unclear what would happen to those marriages if the federal appeals court in Denver, Colorado upholds the state’s ban on gay marriages.
In the US, it falls to states to make the laws governing marriage.
In Utah’s request for a stay of Shelby’s ruling, governor Gary Herbert cited a Supreme Court decision at the end of June in the case of “Windsor v United States” that reaffirmed that principle.
In that decision, the Supreme Court struck down a federal law that refused marriage benefits to legally married homosexuals. But it recalled that marriage was a matter for the states.
Herbert argued that Shelby had ignored “Windsor’s repeated reaffirmations of the states’ virtually plenary authority over marriage.”
“The district court’s due process analysis is contradicted, not supported, by Windsor,” he contended.
Sotomayor, who is in charge of emergency requests for a region that includes Utah, also recently granted a request by a religious organisation to stay a provision in President Barack Obama’s signature health care reform law requiring coverage of birth control methods.