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After being legal for less than three weeks, same-sex marriages in Utah have come to a halt. The U.S. Supreme Court has granted Utah's request to stay a lower court's decision in favor of those marriages, and for the moment, they have stopped. More than 900 gay and lesbian couples got married in the brief time it was legal to do so. Now, they're not sure if the state is bound to recognize those unions. From member station KUER in Salt Lake City, Terry Gildea reports.
TERRY GILDEA, BYLINE: When the Supreme Court ordered on Monday morning that same-sex marriages be stopped in Utah, Salt Lake County Clerk Sherrie Swenson was preparing to issue more marriage licenses to gay couples.
SHERRIE SWENSON: There were some ceremonies scheduled within my office, and we, of course, had the deputy clerk tell them that they couldn't perform the ceremony.
GILDEA: On December 20th, U.S. District Court Judge Robert Shelby overturned Utah's law banning same-sex marriage, known as Amendment 3. The Utah Attorney General's Office filed a total of five requests to stay Shelby's ruling, and four of those were denied. But this week, the Supreme Court granted the stay. So, same-sex marriage in Utah is now on hold while the state crafts an appeal to the 10th Circuit.
SEAN REYES: The stay restores us back to the position we were in prior to the district court's decision. So, Amendment 3 and all of the state statutes that were affected by the decision are now back in place.
GILDEA: That's Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes. He says it's unclear whether the state is bound to recognize the more than 900 gay couples who got married in the last two weeks.
REYES: This is precisely the uncertainty we were hoping to avoid by requesting a stay immediately upon the decision of the district court. It's unfortunate that many Utah citizens have been put into this legal limbo, but we're evaluating their legal status currently.
GILDEA: Now, those gay couples who got married are concerned about the future of those unions. Jim Dabakis got married on December 20th, just hours after the lower court ruling was made public.
STATE SENATOR JIM DABAKIS: I called Stephen, my partner for the last 27 years, and said put a tie on. We're getting married now. Meet me at the clerk's office. The next call was to Mayor Ralph Becker, the mayor of Salt Lake City. I said: Mayor, will you marry us? And he said, of course, Jim. When? I said 15 minutes. He said, I'll be there.
GILDEA: Dabakis, who is a state senator and the chairman of the Utah Democratic Party, doesn't understand how rights to marry can be granted and then taken away.
DABAKIS: Clearly, these are valid marriages. But I am very nervous about the tens of thousands of other Utah couples that will be deprived, over some amount of time, from getting married.
GILDEA: Given Utah's strong connection to the Mormon Church, many gay couples here never thought they would be able to marry. Ken Kimball was overjoyed to marry his long-time partner Miguel. Even though the Supreme Court stayed the ruling, he is confident marriage equality is within reach.
KEN KIMBALL: It's difficult to have something so personal be - waiting your whole life for something, having it given to you, and then having it put on hold, and then being caught in limbo. It's a little bit uncomfortable, for sure.
CARL TOBIAS: I think the precedent, insofar as we have it, is to recognize those that were validly entered at the time they were entered. And so we'll just have to see.
GILDEA: Carl Tobias is a constitutional law professor at the University of Richmond. He says the Supreme Court's stay shouldn't invalidate any same-sex marriages that occurred in the last two weeks. Tobias also says what's happening in Utah could lead the Supreme Court to decide the fate of other states attempting to regulate marriage.
TOBIAS: This may not be the right vehicle. The court may wait for a number of other cases that are in the pipeline. It's just very early to be able to tell exactly how this will play out. But certainly, this seems to be one of the first cases in the federal system. It could be a landmark opinion.
GILDEA: Tobias says Utah's appeal to the 10th Circuit Court will be on expedited review, meaning a decision could come sooner than normal. Briefs from both sides are due by the end of January. Oral arguments could soon follow. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints released a statement saying that the action taken by the Supreme Court allows for a more reasoned and thoughtful discussion on the issue of same-sex marriage. Church officials also said they remained firm in their belief that marriage, as a union between a man and a woman, deserves protection under the law. For NPR News, I'm Terry Gildea, in Salt Lake City. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.