WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court ordered a halt to same-sex marriages in Utah on Monday, sending a go-slow signal as it suspended a federal district judge's decision that gays and lesbians have a constitutional right to marry.
The terse order came with no dissents, suggesting justices are not ready to recognize a right to gay marriage nationwide and reluctant to allow a lower court to nudge them into answering a legal question they carefully avoided in two landmark gay-rights rulings last year.
"If this means anything, it means they want a little more time to decide this," said Cornell law professor Michael Dorf, a former court clerk. "And this order guarantees that."
The order puts a stop to the issuance of new marriage licenses for gay and lesbian couples in Utah while the state appeals to the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver. About a thousand marriage licenses were issued over the past two weeks after the judge's Dec. 20 ruling.
The appeals court is expected to rule later this year, probably meaning the losing side won't get a final decision from the Supreme Court before 2015.
Monday's order came as surprise and disappointment to some. It also left the legal unions of gay and lesbian couples in doubt while the state debates whether to uphold or invalidate marriages conducted before Monday's Supreme Court stay.
"It is very unfortunate that so many Utah citizens have been put into this legal limbo," said Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes. He said his office was "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."
Gay marriage has been gaining acceptance in opinion polls, state legislatures and state courts. Currently, 17 states allow same-sex couples to marry, but at least 28 states — including Utah — have constitutional provisions limiting marriage to a man and a woman.
Gay-rights advocates want the Supreme Court to override those state bans and recognize same-sex marriage as a constitutional right. But the justices have made clear they want to move cautiously.
Last year, advocates of same-sex marriage won two significant victories in the Supreme Court, but not an unqualified right to marry. The justices, on a 5-4 vote, struck down a federal law that denied equal benefits to legally married same-sex couples.
They also handed down a procedural ruling that cleared the way for gay marriages in California, but stopped short of creating a constitutional right nationwide or tackling the question of whether states may enforce a more traditional definition of marriage.