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Gay marriage supporters ask top court not to block Utah weddings

A general view of the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington December 3, 2013. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst
A general view of the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington December 3, 2013. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

By Lawrence Hurley

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Gay marriage proponents on Friday urged the U.S. Supreme Court to deny a request from Utah officials seeking to block a federal court ruling that allowed same-sex weddings to go ahead in the heavily Mormon state.

Now that supporters of gay marriage have filed their response to the state's emergency stay application, it is up to Justice Sonia Sotomayor, who handles such requests from Utah and surrounding states, to decide whether to grant or deny the stay, or refer the matter to the court as a whole. There is no deadline for her to act.

Hundreds of gay couples in Utah have received marriage licenses since the December 20 ruling by U.S. District Judge Robert Shelby.

The state wants a stay of the ruling while it appeals to the Denver-based 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

Shelby already declined to stay his ruling pending appeal, meaning gay and lesbian couples were able to marry in the state immediately. The appeals court also declined to stay the ruling, leaving the U.S. Supreme Court as the state's last recourse.

Friday's court filing by three gay and lesbian couples noted that the appeals court already has agreed to hear the case on an expedited schedule, with briefing to be completed by February 25. They say the state has failed to show that the appeals court's earlier denial of a stay was an incorrect decision.

Utah's court filing on Tuesday called the gay and lesbian marriages that have been performed in the state "an affront ... to the interests of the state and its citizens in being able to define marriage through ordinary democratic channels."

The application relies in part on the high court's June decision in United States v. Windsor, which struck down the federal Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), but also said the definition of marriage was largely a matter of state law.

The Windsor case was one of two major rulings concerning gay marriage that the court ruled on in 2013. The other paved the way for gay marriage in California.

Utah became the 18th state to extend marriage rights to gays and lesbians when Shelby sided with three same-sex couples in their lawsuit challenging a voter-passed amendment to the Utah state constitution that defined marriage as exclusively between a man and a woman.

The decision came as a shock to many of Utah's 2.8 million residents, nearly two-thirds of whom are members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, or Mormons. The Church's doctrine states that sexual relations outside opposite-sex marriage are contrary to the will of God.

The stay application, if granted, would block same-sex marriage while the state appeals Shelby's decision. If the court grants a stay, the justices would not tackle the merits of the case at this stage.

(Reporting by Lawrence Hurley; Editing by Howard Goller and Nick Zieminski)

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