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U.S. Supreme Court quietly turns tide on gay marriage

WASHINGTON

When Gregory Enke heard the news Monday morning, he woke Ariel Ulloa, his partner of eight years, and they rushed to the second floor of a drab government building in to get married in Salt Lake City.

Enke, who was forced to leave the Mormon Church after leaving his longtime wife and living openly in a gay relationship, said it felt like vindication.

"I was in shock," he said. "I started to shake. I was just sobbing. I didn't want to wait anymore."

Scenes of exultation unrolled across five states Monday as county clerks in Indiana, Oklahoma, Utah, Virginia and Wisconsin responded almost instantly to the Supreme Court's refusal to hear any of the same-sex marriage cases before it.

The decision to let the appeals court rulings stand — which came without explanation in a series of brief orders — will have an enormous practical effect and may indicate a point of no return for the Supreme Court.

Most immediately, the court's move increased the number of states allowing same-sex marriage to 24, along with the District of Columbia, up from 19. Within weeks legal ripples from the decision could expand same-sex marriage to 30 states.

Preparations moved swiftly for legalized same-sex marriage in six other states where bans were almost certain to be overturned in coming days and weeks as a result of the court's decision, and at least one county in one of those states, Colorado, began issuing marriage licenses even before getting clearance from above.

In Arlington, Va., Erika Turner and Jennifer Melsop had been planning to wed next August in the District of Columbia, where same-sex marriage is already legal. But when Melsop, a veterinary assistant, read on Facebook about the Supreme Court decision that ended Virginia's ban, she went running to her partner.

"She came up to me, crying, and said, 'I think we can get married today,' " Turner, a registered nurse, explained moments after the pair, both 26, became the first same-sex couple to wed in Arlington County.

In state after state, activists and officials alike said they had been taken by surprise by the Supreme Court's decision to refuse to hear any of the appeals —- a decision that left standing in a number of states the appeals court rulings declaring gay marriage bans unconstitutional.

In part because of the surprise and also because many same-sex couples in some states, including Utah and Wisconsin, were able to marry during brief windows after court decisions in the last year, county offices were not overwhelmed with applicants.

Joseph J. Czarnezki, the Milwaukee county clerk, said no same-sex couples had applied for a marriage license there by late afternoon. When Judge Barbara B. Crabb of U.S. District Court struck down the state's ban earlier this year, the county issued 273 licenses in the brief period before she stayed the ruling.

While some gay rights advocates were disappointed that the Supreme Court did not take up the marriage issue directly, for a final resolution, activists across the country were elated by what now appears to be a clear path to nationwide victory in coming months and years.

Conservative political leaders who oppose same-sex marriage, and had hoped that the Supreme Court would uphold the right of states to decide the issue, expressed concern.

William J. Howell, the Republican speaker of the Virginia House of Delegates, expressed disappointment in the court's ruling, and criticized Mark Herring, the state's Democratic attorney general, for refusing to defend the state's ban on marriage, adopted in a constitutional amendment in 2006.

Gov. Gary Herbert of Utah, a Republican, said: "I can tell you that I'm surprised about this and disappointed. I believe that the people deserve to have this hearing taking place at the Supreme Court level to determine what is a significant issue of our time."

But he said Utah would abide by the law and swiftly instructed county clerks to begin issuing marriage licenses and state agencies to extend legal benefits to married same-sex couples.

"For us, it's over," said Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin, a Republican, the Associated Press reported. "The federal courts have ruled," he said, "and we will be upholding it."

Indiana Gov. Mike Pence, a Republican, said that he still opposed same-sex marriage but that the state must obey the decision. Some county clerks began issuing marriage licenses, but others said they would await official instructions, which may come later in the week.

Legal groups and state officials also sprang to action in the six other states that fall under the jurisdiction of the same three federal appeals courts involved in Monday's ruling: Colorado, Kansas, North Carolina, South Carolina, West Virginia and Wyoming.

Challenges to marriage laws are already pending in each of them, and federal judges, following the circuit courts, will be obliged to issue judgments striking down existing bans.

Chief Judge William L. Osteen Jr., of the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of North Carolina, said he was ready to strike down the state's ban on same-sex marriage.

Three gay couples that had challenged West Virginia's marriage restrictions asked a federal judge to lift the stay he had issued earlier this year. State officials said they were considering whether to keep defending the ban in court.

Some states vowed to resist.

In South Carolina, advocates prepared to file a court motion as state officials indicated that they were in no hurry to change policy. Attorney General Alan Wilson said that because the case involving the South Carolina ban remained unresolved, state officials would continue to enforce and defend the marriage restrictions.

In Wyoming, too, Gov. Matt Mead, a Republican, said, "The attorney general will continue to defend Wyoming's constitution defining marriage between a man and a woman."

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