Updated 4:37 p.m. ET, 1/6/2014
(CNN) – The Supreme Court on Monday temporarily blocked same-sex marriage in Utah, an apparently unanimous order in favor of the state that sends the matter back to an appeals court for expedited consideration.
The case could have sweeping national implications, depending on how the federal appeals panel rules on a challenge to the state's same-sex marriage ban and whether the case returns to the high court.
Utah asked the Supreme Court to intervene last week after 10th Circuit Court of Appeals declined to stay a lower court ruling in December striking down Utah's voter-approved prohibition of legal wedlock for gays and lesbians.
Hundreds of people sought marriage licenses following U.S. District Judge Robert Shelby's ruling that said the restriction, approved in 2004, conflicted with the constitutional guarantees of equal protection and due process.
Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor received the Utah petition and then asked her colleagues to weigh in.
The court followed up with a two-sentence order without comment that puts same-sex marriages on hold in Utah only.
Utah Gov. Gary Herbert said the Supreme Court made the "correct" decision to stay Shelby's ruling.
"As I have said all along, all Utahns 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," he said in a statement.
One question arising from the Supreme Court ruling is the status of those who received marriage licenses after Shelby's ruling. The Utah Attorney General's office put the figure at around 950, but it was not clear how many people actually wed.
Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes gave no indication on Monday whether the state would try to challenge the validity of those unions.
"There is not clear legal precedence for this particular situation. 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," Reyes said in a statement.
The appeals panel in Denver is expected to consider the case again in coming weeks more thoroughly. A ruling there could affect all states within the court's jurisdiction: Utah, Colorado, Wyoming, New Mexico, Oklahoma, and Kansas.
More recently, same-sex marriage legal battles have become prominent in states where it is prohibited. But the Utah case is a broad challenge that goes to the heart of constitutional law as it applies to the state ban and could wind up back at the Supreme Court. Same-sex couples say laws like Utah's violate their equal protection and due process rights.
"It could be the challenge that a lot of people have been waiting for, which is does the United States Constitution guarantee a right to marriage for everyone," said CNN Senior Legal Analyst Jeffrey Toobin. "That's the issue in this case and it's now working its way through the courts. It could take quite some time."
The Supreme Court ruled more narrowly this past summer on separate issues involving same-sex marriage.
It cleared the way for those unions in California to resume and rejected parts of a federal law, concluding same-sex spouses legally married in a state may receive federal benefits.
Most states still ban the practice, but polls show more support for it publicly.
Same-sex advocates look to Shelby's arguments to sway the appeals panel.
"Despite today's decision, we are hopeful that the lower court's well-reasoned decision will be upheld in the end and that courts across the country will continue to recognize that all couples should have the freedom to marry," Joshua Block, attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union, said in a statement.
The lawsuit considered by Shelby was brought by one gay and two lesbian couples in Utah who wish to marry but have been unable to do so because of the state ban.
Same-sex marriage is banned by constitutional amendment or state law in: Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas, Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Michigan, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, North Carolina, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia, West Virginia, Wisconsin and Wyoming.
It is legal in 17 other U.S states and the District of Columbia: California, Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Illinois, Iowa, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, Rhode Island, Vermont and Washington.
The case is Herbert v. Kitchen (13A687)
Even a temporary abridgment of Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness is unacceptable. This is a failure on the part of the Supreme Court to secure and defend the rights of the governed.
Sotomayor is turning into a turncoat against democracy. I am sorry I ever supported her.
I have yet to hear a single argument against same sex marriage that isn't religious based. Please explains to me in detail EXACTLY how this affects current opposite sex marriages.
For some people, religious freedom means forcing other people to live according to their religion. The courts will not agree.
This is not a good decision. Same-sex marriage violates no one's rights, but its non-existence does.
This is silly....people keep using this word freedom like they know what it is...yet they want to keep people from having the same rights as other human beings.
Ok. This is ridiculous. While it is being decided if gays can marry, in the states where gays cannot marry, they should pay a reduction in taxes, based on the financial losses they will suffer from not being married- there are many financial benefits to marriage that Gays don't have access to. So, how about gays pay 50% of their taxes? We aren't being treated as equals, so this seems fair.
if a state wishes to define what a citizen is (race, religion, gender, height, etc.), then should they be able to? I think not. I loved this line "And each one is an affront... to the interests of the states and its citizens in being able to define marriage through ordinary democratic channels."
As was said, this is not a theocracy. But sadly it appears as if we are lurching in that direction.
@THINKAGAIN Murder is a religious based wrong doing, should murder be lawful? If you wish to dismiss what I am saying, there have been many societies through out history where murder has been okay. Many cultures have done it under the guise of offerings to their gods, and others allow it to this day they are called honor killings.
Leave marriage alone! We all don't have to give in to our unnatural urges....... If so, remove all laws that limit who/what/how many someone is sexually involved with.
Finally a victory for God!
Come on Utah.... leave the haters behind and come join the liberty & justice for all states.
Thats a terribly flawed line of logic. A voter does not need to concede his/her vote because he/she is religious. To undermine the opinion of the voter is unconstitutional.
Alright, separating men and women in bathrooms is a discrimination and un-constitutional.. the facts their Gs do not
look the same should be a basis for discrimination.
When the voters of Utah said NO to gay marriage, it should have stopped there. Who are a small group to decide what everyone must accept. Want to get married? Move to a state where the people say yes. Tired of the small groups of people telling the masses what to do. Do what you want, but don't act like votes count only when they meet your needs or agenda. The votes said NO accept it and move on. Those voters have an equal voice.
Utah - owned and operated by the Church of Latter Day Saints.
So they are going to decide if the States rights clause trumps the equal protection clause of the Federal Constitution. I thought that was decided with the banning of slavery.
Utah, soon you'll be dragged (apparently kicking and screaming) into the 21st Century, whether you like it or not. If you don't like gay marriage, then don't marry a person of the same sex as you. Otherwise keep your holier-than-thou noses out of other peoples' business. Gay marriage has absolutely ZERO effect on anyone else's marriage, period.
Sad times in the fight of equal rights. I wonder if the judge had ruled in favor on an issue that favored the morman church. Would they think of him as "an activist federal judge" still?
Wow what a great place to live...sad how human rights are second to narrow minded "religious zealots" fear.
Marriage is not a Constitutionally guaranteed privilege. In that case, the Constitution specifically gives the decision to the states. Not that it will matter to you, of course.
Down goes Frasier! Down goes Frasier!
Let the states decide. Then they will have to live with the consequences be they good or bad.
How many times does this need to be revisited and how much is being made by attorneys?
It's a no-brainer. All are equal under the law, period.
Why pay lawyers for years to debate what already has a foregone conclusion? To please bigots for a few more years?
So SCOTUS is going to look at States rights vs equal protection in the US Constitution. Thought this was decided over a century ago.