Utah will not recognize same-sex marriages performed before high court stay

4:34 PM, Jan 8, 2014   |    comments
Laurie Wood, left, and Kody Partridge embrace after being told they are officially married by the Rev. Curtis Price in the lobby of the Salt Lake County office on Dec. 20 in Salt Lake City.
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(CNN) -- Utah will not recognize the hundreds of same-sex marriages that were temporarily allowed by a federal judge's ruling but before the Supreme Court issued an injunction, the state announced Wednesday.

Officials say more than a thousand marriage licenses between gay and lesbian couples were issued in the 17 days between the initial ruling and the high court's Monday order blocking enforcement. 

"Based on counsel from the Attorney General's Office regarding the Supreme Court decision, state recognition of same-sex marital status is ON HOLD until further notice," said the governor's Chief of Staff Derek Miller in a letter to cabinet officials.

"Please understand this position is not intended to comment on the legal status of those same-sex marriages- that is for the courts to decide. The intent of this communication is to direct state agency compliance with current laws that prohibit the state from recognizing same-sex marriages."

U.S. District Judge Robert Shelby concluded on December 20 the decision that a state law banning same-sex marriage, approved in 2004, conflicted with the constitutional guarantees of equal protection and due process. That prompted many counties to begin issuing marriages licenses, but the state then appealed to the Supreme Court.

The justices' two-sentence order blocks enforcement until the constitutional questions are fully resolved. A federal appeals court could hold oral arguments as soon as March. A ruling there could affect all states within the court's jurisdiction: Utah, Colorado, Wyoming, New Mexico, Oklahoma, and Kansas.

But in the meantime, that left the tricky, unresolved question about the status of those who received marriage licenses after Shelby's ruling.

"The original laws governing marriage in Utah return to effect pending final resolution by the courts," said the letter from the governor's office. "It is important to understand that those laws include not only a prohibition of performing same-sex marriages but also recognizing same-sex marriages."

State officials had sharply criticized Shelby's ruling, and his order same-sex marriages be allowed to take place immediately, saying it created legal confusion.

"This is the uncertainty that we were trying to avoid by asking the [federal] 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," said the state's attorney general Sean Reyes earlier this week.

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.

The case is Herbert v. Kitchen.

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